Facing death through art

Among the pine and silver birch forests on the Gulf of Riga sits Mārtiņ cemetery with one gravestone unlike the others.

On the headstone of Latvian artist Emīlija Mērniece-Gūtmane is her death mask.

Every line on her face in its final form is captured in vivid detail given the impression she could open her eyes any moment. But it isn’t spooky, it’s very human and a reminder that every other stone in this graveyard contains someone who once could smile or furrow their brow.

Before the advent of photography, death masks were used to capture a person’s ultimate likeness and would help sculptors make statues. And while it’s a practice that has fallen out of use, there is one face from a death mask many of us will have seen – and may even kissed.

Resusci Anne is the standard CPR doll used to teach first aid and was based on L’Inconnue de la Seine, the death mask of a girl drowned in the Seine.

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