LDS Living recently went to the Church History Museum and discovered some interesting artifacts, from Hyrum Smith’s sunglasses to Eliza R. Snow’s pocket watch. But there are two additional historic items that have a story all their own: the death masks of Joseph and Hyrum Smith. Read on to find out more about what a death mask is and how the Church came to have these special memorials on display.
1. Death masks date back to ancient Egyptian times.
Photography and daguerreotypes (photographic images on a silvered copper plate) were only beginning to make an appearance during the time of Joseph and Hyrum’s death, so death masks were an easy way to preserve the memory and appearance of deceased loved ones. Though making death masks is not a common tradition today, the practice dates back to ancient Egyptian times. The masks were usually intended as a way to remember the person who had died and to create other artwork of them. Joseph and Hyrum’s casts were made by George Cannon (father of apostle George Q. Cannon) with layers of plaster and fabric strips. These casts were the basis for many paintings and busts of the prophet and his brother, starting as early as the 1850s.
2. Hyrum’s mask still shows his fatal injury.
Latter-day Saints are fairly familiar with the story of Joseph and Hyrum’s martyrdom and the fact that Hyrum was killed when a bullet entered the left side of his nose. Because the masks were made soon after their deaths, there is little post-mortem distortion. However, the bullet wound on Hyrum’s face is distinguishable as a small distortion on the mask.
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