Mortis- History of the death mask
Stephen McPadden 1922-2003
The idea of the death mask arouse over Christmas.
Our mother had died 3 months earlier. She was cremated on my 30th
birthday. The year had begun ill-omened with the demolishing of the
Glasgow granary: a building which had stood defiant over the Glasgow
skyline since 1937. A strange coincidence how my mother departed
from this world on the same date as I was born. My mother died
suddenly in hospital, while my father declined slowly, and finally
dying in his own bed, at home. The family expected his death:
the question was only when? This when, gave me a certain amount
of time to purchase the materials and plan to execute the death
mask. There was also a greater pressure hanging over me: was
I emotionally prepared to do this?
It was the January 1st 2003. Paul awoke to find no one in the
house. Our father lay in the bed beside him having passed away
a few hours earlier. Paul walked around the house, searching
for another member of the family. The previous evening the house
had been busy with people, all nervously ready to celebrate the
New Year and acknowledging the thought of what was going to happen.
I awoke from a deep sleep. I was on the floor at the bottom of the
bed. My brother had overlooked me.
After the doctor had gone and done the routine practice
of recording the cause and time of death, it was time to get to work:
fast. The funeral directors would arrive in a couple of hours and
the house would be full with family members all wanting to pay their
It is considered best to make a death mask as soon
as possible after death occurs. I spread a thin layer of Vaseline
over the hair of the eye lashes and the eyebrows of my father, while
Paul prepared a mixture of plaster of Paris in the kitchen sink.
We then applied a thin layer of plaster of Paris over the face of
our dead father. Once this first layer had began to set a second
thicker layer was poured on top to seal his face under a mask of
plaster, 10 cm thick. After this outer layer had set, the mould was
removed from his face to form a negative image in which a death mask
was to be cast. During our operation we were caught off guard and
disturbed by relatives who were shocked and ushered briskly out of
the room. We cleaned his face and picked the loose pieces of plaster
from his mouth.
He was cremated ten days later.
When I returned to Florence I began the second part
of our work. I filled the mould with plaster of Paris and left it
to set. I eagerly awaited to know the outcome: whether our work would
be in vain and the image would he lost for ever or the face of our
father would reveal itself. I let the cast sit for days in a corner
of the studio, undisturbed. The only memory of these days I have
is of drinking champagne in the mid January sun while listening to
the locals blasting the wild pigs in the neighbouring Volpaia woods:
the serenity broken by the gunshots and the constant reminder that
death was always so close.
Once completely set, the mould was cracked open
to reveal the positive image of the face. It had turned out satisfactory:
the last breath caught eternal: his mouth agape, the death rattle
forever frozen in time. Hair and stubble of the dead man remained
in the plaster. In the following months during the Tuscan summer
I cast the mask in bronze to make a permanent sculpture of my father's
Memorandum Mortis was now complete.