Death masks, in a slightly weird but strangely beautiful way, were a way for the faces of the dead to be preserved and remembered for eternity. Also known as a funeral mask, these "masks" were commonly made out of wax or plaster, and were made shortly after the death of a loved one. These were more common during times when photography was not yet around, so what's a better way to preserve the face of your beloved than to create what was essentially a 3D bust of the persons face?! After drying, the death masks could either be used as memento mori, or they could be used to help assist in future portraits that were to be made of the deceased.
The great thing about these molds were that they could capture details of the persons face, which could help artists to create a painting that was as realistic of the person as possible. However, sometimes the molds would create their own sort of distortions of the persons face, since the weight of the plaster could essentially be shaped into anything. Occasionally, the masks were placed on the faces of the dead just before their burial, and they were even buried with the actual mask on. Think ancient Egypt, and how their mummified bodies are often seen with masks on; only difference being that the Egyptian death masks were sculptures rather than molds, but that changed as the Middle Ages came, and casts were physically made of the deceased.
It is important to note, though, that by the time these masks were used during the Middle Ages, the masks were not left on the dead, nor were the deceased buried with the masks on like the ancient Egyptians were. The masks were used during the funeral ceremony, and then would later become displayed in the society's museums, libraries, and even universities. Believe it or not, death masks were also used to serve another purpose: forensic science! Before the use of photography, molds of the faces of the deceased could be made for bodies that could not be identified. The death mask could then be presented to the public, and hopefully the person's friends or family could identify the face of the person and help identify the body - it's a pretty crazy early form of forensic science, but it was a great utilization of the molds.
While many people may not know what death masks are today, they played a tremendous role in the human history. They helped the grieving family remember and honor their lost loved one, and they helped document the appearance of many famous figures throughout society. such as Napoleon Bonaparte, Ludwig Van Beethoven, Abraham Lincoln, Benjamin Franklin, Oliver Cromwell, and many more. (If you are interested in seeing the death masks of these figures, as well as a bunch of other notable figures, check out this site!) There are still people today who are out there forever solidifying the faces of their families and friends in the form of a death mask, as well as life masks (same process only it is performed on the living), and it is a beautiful - yet often forgotten - part of our past.