Masking death

In many ancient civilisations, the mask was used to cover the face of the deceased
as part of the last ceremony, writes Kanwarjit Singh Kang

"For certain is death for the born

And certain is birth for the dead;

Therefore over the inevitable

Thou shouldst not grieve."

— Lord Krishna in The Bhagavadgita

Notwithstanding the atheistic view, which totally denies the possibility of life after death, most philosophers, thinkers, ideologists and mystics have vouched for the aforesaid revelation of spiritual wisdom in the holy text.

Mask of Tutankhamun, Egyptian Museum, Cairo
Mask of Tutankhamun, Egyptian Museum, Cairo

Sican funerary mask, Metropolitan Museum. New York city
Sican funerary mask, Metropolitan Museum. New York city

Cultures throughout the world dispose of their dead in accordance with their religious beliefs and social traditions. These traditions have changed considerably over the past few centuries. The archaeology of death and burial has helped to understand much about ancient civilisations and vanished societies. Through the remains of funerary rituals, conventions and practices, archaeologists have learnt about the attitudes of prehistoric people to death and afterlife, their conceptions about the departed soul and its journey from this world to the divine transformation in the next.

In many ancient civilisations, anthropomorphic masks were used to cover the face of the deceased as part of ceremonies associated with the dead and departing spirits. The conception behind these masks differed from culture to culture. Usually, their purpose was to represent the features of the dead with the spirit world. Masks were also used to protect the dead by frightening away malevolent spirits.

Ancient Egyptians’ belief in rebirth after death was their driving force behind their funeral practices. They placed stylised masks with generalised features on the faces of their dead. These were made of cloth covered with stucco or plaster, which was then painted. For prominent persons, gold and silver were used to prepare masks. Among the most magnificent examples of burial masks is the one created for the Pharaoh Tutankhamun in circa 1350 B.C.

For the ancient Egyptians, death was merely a temporary interruption, rather than total termination of life, and that eternal life could be ensured by performing an elaborate set of burial rituals.

All Egyptians, who could afford to, were embalmed and their bodies were preserved by mummification. The mummy was wrapped in linen bondages and a mask was placed on the face of the mummy. Then a priest wearing the mask of the jackal-headed god, Anubis, touched the lips of the masked mummy with a special tool to open the mouth. This ritual, the Egyptians believed, granted the dead the power to eat and speak in the next life. Almost everything the dead might need in his or her afterlife like food, clothing, cosmetics, furniture — the paraphernalia for actual living — was stalked in the tomb before placing the coffin. The tomb was also embellished with murals representing servants, who were believed to come alive, when need arose, and be of service to the departed soul.

Beaten gold portrait masks were found in the tombs of the Mycenaean civilisation, which flourished between 1600 and 1100 B.C. in ancient Greece. In ancient Roman burials, the mask resembling the deceased was often placed over his face or was worn by an actor hired to accompany the funerary cortege to the burial site. Masks made of gold were also placed on the faces of dead kings of Cambodia and Siam.

The Andean civilisation that prospered around 10th century B.C. in South America used metallic death masks with movable ears. Similarly, the Sican civilisation, which flourished in the northern coast of Peru (750-900 A.D), used metallic masks to perform their burial rituals. These masks varied in thickness, metal composition and surface embellishment. Usually the cinnabar-red paint covered the cheeks and forehead of the mask. The eyes of some of the masks had skewer-like projections. Spangles and danglers were
also used to embellish these
burial masks.

As has been revealed by archaeological excavations of the sites of the Indus Valley Civilisation, ancient Indians, despite practicing an elaborate mortuary system, did not make use of masks. They also forbade class distinction and had little value of the ostentatious display of high status, and thus differed from the ancient Egyptians, who raised great tombs for their royalty and upper class citizens.

In the Middle Ages, a change took place from sculpted masks to true death masks, made of wax or plaster. These were not interred with the dead; instead these were used as mementos. Oliver Cromwell’s death mask, for instance, is preserved at the Warwick Castle, England.

Another prominent death mask is that of Napoleon Bonaparte, displayed in the British Museum, London.