Death masks have served many roles over the centuries.
In Ancient Egypt,mummification preserved bodies while making them nearly unrecognizable. Ornate masks were created in the likeness of the deceased so the soul may recognize the body it was to inhabit upon its return.
In the Middle Ages,funeral effigies were a representation of the deceased and used in place of viewing the actual body. Embalming for restorative purposes was still centuries away. Mourners would gaze upon a wax sculpture of the head and face, mounted on a wooden frame, dressed in the clothes of the deceased.
In the 1840's,photography was in its infancy and having a picture made was a laborious process, expensive and, for many, unattainable. For many, the first and only picture of taken of them was in death, giving rise to memorial photography and all but phasing out death masks, sculptures and painted portraits as a means of remembering someone. Death masks and other casted body parts were still made to aid in forensic investigations and create anatomical models for training purposes.
Today,this is an art seldom practiced. Fortunately, there are morticians that have dedicated themselves to recalling the lost arts of their craft and are able to produce enduring and astonishingly accurate molds upon request.
A valuable enhancement to this process is that of casting the hands and feet of children who have passed on giving the parents a three dimensional memory of their child.