Memorandum 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.


Everyone had gone.

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 last respects.

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 face.

Memorandum Mortis was now complete.