Their mother, Lucy Mack Smith, described her experience first seeing them: “After the corpses were washed and dressed in their burial clothes we were allowed to see them. I had for a long time braced every nerve, roused every energy of my soul, and called upon God to strengthen me; but when I entered the room, and saw my murdered sons, extended both at once before my eyes; and heard the sobs and groans of my family—the cries of ‘Father! Husband! Brothers!’ from the lips of their wives, children, brothers and sisters, it was too much—I sunk back crying to the Lord in the agony of my soul, My God! My God! Why hast thou forsaken this family? A voice replied, I have taken them to myself that they might have rest. . . .
“As I looked upon their peaceful, smiling countenances, I seemed to almost hear them say: mother, weep not for us; we have overcome the world by love; we carried to them the gospel, that their souls might be saved—they slew us for our testimony, and thus placed us beyond their power—their ascendancy is for a moment—ours is an eternal triumph.”1
Despite the violence of their death, their faces, preserved forever in plaster, appear calm and serene. George Cannon made plaster molds of the brothers’ faces with layers of plaster and fabric strips shortly after they arrived in Nauvoo and before the public viewing. After the plaster dried, the molds were peeled from their faces and used to create these death masks, the most accurate likeness of the Prophet and his brother available without photography. There may have been several casts made at the same time, but only this original set is still known to exist. Other copies of the death masks, in private and public collections, were apparently made from these original casts.
The tradition of making death masks dates back to ancient Egypt, when the masks were served as aids to portrait sculptors.2 By the Middle Ages, death masks were created both as a memento of the person and as a model from which sculptures and paintings of the person could be made.3 Although the tradition of making death masks is not well known today, it remained popular through the 19th century and into the 20th, in part because of the practice of phrenology,4 or the study of a person’s head to determine that person’s character and attributes.5 Some famous people, including Abraham Lincoln, also sat for life masks, or casts of their faces made while they were still living.6
Because the masks of Joseph and Hyrum were made within 24 hours after death and because both men were healthy and strong, there is very little postdeath distortion to their facial features. As early as 1850, casts of the death masks were used to create a bust of Joseph Smith. Later artists have followed suit, using the death masks to guide them in their work.
If you look closely, you can see the wound where a bullet struck Hyrum on the left side of his nose. The white patches on the casts indicate areas where they have been repaired in recent years.
These masks, taken in death, honor and memorialize the lives of these great men.