A death mask is a casting of someone's face which is taken after death. Typically either wax or plaster is used to create the mask, which may later be used as a model for sculptures, portraits, and other mementos. At one time, creating these masks was very widespread, and an important cultural aspect of mourning rituals for many people. The practice has declined radically since the advent of photography.
The concept of the death mask is ancient. The Greeks, Egyptians, and Romans all made them, and in some cases sculptors also used the dead as models for busts, effigies, and other memorials for the dead. One of the most famous death masks from the ancient world is probably the mask on the mummy of Tutankhamen; the Egyptians believed that the mask gave power to the mummy.
In the Middle Ages, it was very common to take a death mask after death, and well through the early 20th century, a mask was often offered routinely by funeral parlors and people who prepared bodies for burial. Making a good death mask actually requires some skill, because it can be hard to take a cast of the face without distorting the features or damaging the body.
Death masks of numerous notable personages can be seen on display in libraries and museums. Many musicians and artists have been memorialized with such masks, which were later copied and distributed and used to make busts of varying sizes. Depending on the skill of the person who makes the mask, it can be a poignant reminder of the dead, or a somewhat macabre curiosity.
In addition to serving as sentimental relics, death masks also historically played an important role in forensics. Pathologists who examined bodies would take a death mask if the body was that of an unknown person, in the hopes that family members would be able to identify the body by its features at some point in the future. This practice largely vanished after the development of photography, although molds and models of various parts of crime victims are still made today for specialized use in forensics.