Unforgettable Death Mask: The Unknown Woman of the Seine
Death, to most of us, is a distant nightmare lurking somewhere on an unfathomable horizon, a future concern. But there have always been people who see beauty in death, like we see beauty in a rose, for example. This was the case in Paris in the late 1880s after the body of an unidentified young woman was recovered from the River Seine, not far from the Louvre Museum . The morgue pathologist was so enchanted, haunted and stimulated by the girl’s face that he commissioned a plaster death mask which is today called the "Inconnue de la Seine ” (the Unknown Woman of the Seine).
Bohemian Paris was obsessed with the curious, the weird and the morbid, and the girl’s body was put on exhibition at the public morgue, attracting thousands of Parisians who wanted a glimpse of what appears to be a deeply-peaceful expression on her face. A December 2018 article published on Science Alert says it is known that the female was about 16 years old when she died, and while there were no suspicious marks found on her body many doctors at the time “assumed” that she had taken her own life. But we all know how dangerously wrong an assumption can be.
The butterfly is often associated with the moment of death and our release from the body. (Cristina Conti / Adobe Stock )
Death By Unknown Causes
The circumstances surrounding the unidentified teenager’s death remain unsolved to this day, and according to the New York Times the philosopher and author, Albert Camus, described the dead girl’s mask as the “drowned Mona Lisa ” and a “coveted French cultural icon.”
Inconnue’s stirringly peaceful half-smile was widely reproduced and her head became a centerpiece on mantel-places and salon walls of bohemian Paris. Eventually she was exported all over Europe, inspiring books, and the arts long after her death.
In the 1950s, when a Norwegian company, called Laerdal Medical , developed the first CPR doll, they launched “ Resusci Anne ” (CPR Annie), and the face and lips of the l ’Inconnue death mask were used in CPR courses all over the world.
A Resusci Anne CPR dummy, which is based on the death face mask of the young French woman who drowned in the River Seine at the end of the 19th century. (~aorta~ / CC BY-SA 2.0 )
At a time when the discarded bodies of sex workers were regularly fished out of the Seine, and, according to a report on Dirty Sex History , this occurred “almost daily.” The Parisian police chose to “assume suicides” had taken place unless contrary evidence was discovered. Furthermore, many have argued that a victim of drowning could never have maintained such a relaxed look on their face. Moreover, not a single injury was found on the girl’s body. This has led most historians who have looked at this unsolved case to conclude that she was another of the thousands of sex workers who had taken their own lives rather than suffer the misery of the seedy Parisian underworld.
These widely held assumptions--that a young sex worker had committed suicide--was perhaps acceptable back then. But this simplistic way of looking at the case can be easily challenged with modern understandings not available at that time.
A moment of euphoria in life could also be the last emotion seen on our faces when we die. (fizkes / Adobe Stock )
Deriving Clues From A Post Euphoric Expression
According to a February 2020 article published on the BBC, the moment of passing appears to bring an “expression of relief” to the deceased. The article also says people often “look like they are sleeping,” just after they die, and what’s more, they “have a neutral facial expression.”
There are numerous serious restrictions on the science of death. Experiments are basically never performed on groups of dying people. A 2011 study on death in rat populations was published in Science Direct and it revealed that serotonin and other brain chemicals “tripled in the brains of six rats” contributing to “feelings of happiness,” as they died.
The scientists speculated that something similar could happen in humans at the moment of death and many studies have shown that drowning, in particular, instigates intense feelings of peace, tranquility, perhaps even euphoria. A study published in 2013 in Smithsonian Magazine proved epinephrine and other chemicals were released in the brain during the moment of death that could account for the sense of euphoria. In a recent TED Talk , the American neuroanatomist Jill Bolte-Taylor described her own near death experience following a stroke, when her left brain hemisphere, which governs rational thought and processes of logic, shut down. As she “started to die,” she said it was “euphoric,” and the sensation was comparable to “reaching nirvana.”
In the case of the Inconnue de la Siene , the young girl’s expression is most often described as “happy” and “calm.” However, it could be more accurately described as “post-euphoric,” and this suggests the girl didn’t commit suicide. So, could have been thrown into the water alive and then subsequently developed her “euphoric” expression after dying?
Passing from the moment of death, hopefully with a euphoric expression, into the light of another world is an opportunity for us all and it begins with how we live life! (OFC Pictures / Adobe Stock )
Death: The Final Frontier For Every Individual
Ultimately, after millions of years of evolution and 5000 years of formal medical research, we know very little about what happens to us when we die. What is known is that as the body shuts down the brain is activated with chemicals, effectively hyper-charging the creative imagination, influencing the personal experiences we have at the moment of death. When we gaze into the calming, happy and post-euphoric face of the Inconnue de la Seine it serves to remind us that passing from this world to the next might not be so terrifying after all.
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Maybe we should fear the shadows of the dying light less. There is no doubt that Death will find us. But in the meantime, before we reach our end, perhaps we should live our present lives in such a way that a calm, happy, euphoric death moment is the final outcome.
Perhaps the I’nconnue found immortality because she is a ghostly mirror reflecting that which is inevitable for all of us. And I don’t mean only death, but also that most terrifying second death, when your name is said for the last time ever. Like the Inconnue de la Seine, we become a forgotten dream in the imagination of history. Gone. Like we never existed. But while we existed there was light and joy. The passing of a person to the other side is always a chance to appreciate life and to live to the fullest while we can.
Top image: The face of the Inconnue de la Seine at her death, which inspired the creation of her death mask and made millions more hopeful about the process of passing to the other side. Source: Left; Public domain Right; Ovid Uman / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 )
By Ashley Cowie