21st Century Death Masks

Death masks for the 21st century

For centuries the living have been attempting to capture the likeness of the dead. Starting with the elaborately painted mummies of Ancient Egypt, the death mask has become an essential part of documenting the past. The ancient practice has stuck around, but there is now an emerging generation of death mask artistry. Using high-definition 3D printing software and 3D images of vital DNA, death masks are making their way into the future. They’re making their way so far into the future, they aren’t even masks.

An on-going tradition

The traditionally hand-made, plaster and wax reinforced death masks are still trading. The artist and musician Nick Reynolds started out as a sculptor but in time made the move to death mask-making. He’s now, it seems, the sole inheritor of the tradition in the UK and lays claim to the idea that there’s ‘something more magical and mystical to a death mask’ than a portrait, painting or photograph. For Reynolds, the physical nature of the method is what gives the masks that special quality.

The future of the death mask

Now, the death mask practice has entered a new phase. A group of design buffs at MIT, as part of the Mediated Matter research cluster, have started to experiment with 3D printers and DNA to create alternative memorials. How do these new designs keep that ‘magical’ sense of a likeness when the masks themselves look like something out of Alien?

These new death masks involve a far more sophisticated technology than the plaster and wax Reynolds uses, but it’s a far less hands-on design. The research team modelled complex forms based on genetic information, including the patterns and rhythms of breathing, to form the basis of the final shape. These images are then fed into an ultra-high definition 3D printer, to create the final form which looks like a combination of nerve endings, X-ray negatives and one of Dr. Who’s less attractive mortal enemies.

Unlike their traditional ancestors, these designs are data driven and digitally generated. While you won’t be able to tell who’s vital statistics you’re peering at, or even trace the person’s scars and the outline of their blackheads, you will be left with an exceptionally intimate look at everything that once made that person very much human.

For what Nick Reynolds finds ‘magical and mystical’ in the traditional, handmade method of death mask making, the research team are producing something similar using advanced technology, biology and design. The see-through and featureless ‘masks’ seem even more alive than the mere likeness of a traditional death mask. 

For their glimpse inside the human body, giving form to invisible processes such as breathing, this new technology is an insight into the future of memorialising the dead. If you think you would like to be a part of the death mask revolution, then go ahead and get planning – you’ll need to start making sure your internal vital processes are looking death-mask ready early. 

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