What’s A Death Mask?

Before photography, paintings were one of the few ways to preserve what people looked like, but commissioned portraits took a lot of time and were costly. A cheaper and faster alternative was to make a mold of a person’s face.

Death masks were often cast directly off the face of a fresh corpse, providing an almost perfect recreation of their features. Early Egyptian sarcophagi headdresses are some of the earliest known death masks, with King Tutankhamun’s being perhaps the most famous death mask in history. By the Age of Enlightenment, plaster death masks had come back into style, owing their popularity to the Greeks and Romans.

Of the many philosophers and academics who had their faces immortalized after death, Jeremy Bentham was one of them. It was typical for these masks to be taken straight off of fresh corpses, but Bentham may have been an exception. University College London researchers aren’t completely sure whether the mask was taken before Bentham’s death or not. Though they found a reference to a local anatomy school making a mask for a “JB” about a decade before the philosopher’s death, the process would have been unusual and highly uncomfortable—at least for the living.

Bentham was a man ahead of his time in many ways. He wanted prison reform, animal rights, and universal suffrage. He passed away in 1832, leaving behind very specific instructions of what to do with his remains. His master plan was to have his head mummified and displayed atop his skeleton, which he wanted to be clad in a black suit. His dream was to forever look over University College London.

jeremy bentham head

Unfortunately, the preservation process on his head didn’t quite go as planned. His skin shriveled and yellowed, leaving him with a complexion akin to jerky—far rougher than the plaster mask.  Sitting him in a school corridor in 1850, officials weren’t sure what to do with his ghastly remains. Eventually, they commissioned a wax sculpture of his head—using the mask as a referenced—and placed the genuine article between the figure’s feet.

Presently, Bentham presides over university council meetings, noted as present but not voting—though he does get a say if the vote is split, providing a tie-breaking “yes” vote.

Unfortunately, Bentham’s head has been stolen numerous times. One group sent a ransom note demanding £100, but the school countered with just £10, and the students caved. The worst prank involved a group of students ransacking the head and using it as a soccer ball.