Death Masks at Montoya Campus

Story and photos by Heather Hay

Jim Johnson, Montoya campus full time instructor, offered his Death and Dying course students unique opportunities to learn about the death industry, including creating death masks which are scheduled to  be unveiled today for all students to come see at a presentation on Día de los Muertos by an Albuquerque author.

The death masks, which are impressions of the face of a dead person, will be voted on at the talk given by  author and CNM Program Manager Andrés Armijo about Día de los Muertos on Nov 2nd, at 4:30 p.m. at the Montoya Campus in room J122, said Johnson.

According to Armijo, who has a master’s degree in Spanish and Southwest Hispanic Studies, Día de los Muertos has become popular in our part of Latin America for recent generations thanks to immigration that had brought a mixture of Mexican Catholic traditions with them.

To read Armijo’s full interview click here.

“In recent years the celebration of Día de los Muertos has become popular, if not commercial.  I am a native New Mexican Hispanic (Nuevo Mexicanos) and a gen-x.  When I was an undergraduate and graduate student, I started seeing more expressions of Día de los Muertos, although for my parent’s generation and before that Día de los Muertos was not very familiar to them,” said Armijo.

Students will be able to learn about the Día de los Muertos tradition here in New Mexico at the talk by Armijo, and they will be able to vote on the death masks that he assigned his students to make, said Johnson.

Johnson said his students really enjoy the death mask project and get an impression of their own mortality by preserving their own faces in plaster and decorating them; he even had his wife make one of his own face when he began the project eight years ago when he had a mustache.

Jim Johnson with his own death mask.

“She put straws in my nose and wrapped my face in Vaseline and then put gauze on it and then made a mold and then poured plaster of Paris in that.  And it looks pretty realistic,” he said.

Johnson said there are many famous death masks throughout history that are in Museums including Abraham Lincoln, Beethoven, Shakespeare, King Tut, John Dillinger and Mary Queen of Scotts that still has human hair on it.

He said the Summer  is the best time to take the class because it allowed the students to go on field trips to a mortuary and the Office of Medical Investigator, which is where bodies from around the state are taken to be autopsied.

Johnson said he regrets that the Death and Dying class is no longer going to be available during the summer semesters, which had a longer class time by a half hour, which now makes it impossible for students to go on those special trips.

“To my knowledge, I’m the only class that did that.  I would take them down there to see what the full OMI (Office of Medical Investigator) does, and they get a tour of the whole beautiful facility, it’s like a state of the art facility for the country.  It’s one of the best one’s in the country, here in New Mexico,”  he said.

Johnson said students really loved his class and he has a very low rate of students dropping his class.

“I tell students it is an important class because it is something you will definitely use; you are going to be burying your parents or grandparents.  And if you know what the field is about, what decisions you have to make before you have to make them you’re in a much better frame of mind than having to make decisions when you are going through a grief state,” he said.

Johnson said he also learned a lot from the students’ PowerPoint presentations that included topics such as the Body Farm, the Death Forest in Japan where people go to commit suicide, bodies consumed by vultures in Tibet, and converting a cremated body into a reef or a diamond.

“For example I used to live in the Philippines and I had no idea that in some cultures in the Philippines that they have cliff burials.  Where they have these poles coming out of a cliff and then they put the body in a container on the poles and then they are resting on the cliffs.  I had no idea and I had lived there for five years,” he said.

In the Fall semester students do the mask assignment, and in the Spring semester the students go to the mortuary and memorial park, he said.

Johnson said students and faculty will be able to vote on the masks this week in the G building, and then they will be on display at the Montoya Library after that.

“Green is best!  Orks is simple and humorous.  That has always appealed to me.  Aesthetically I’ve always been a fan of the ugly, worn, and rough-around-the-edges.”        -Bear


“I have lived in New Mexico my whole life (36 years).  I feel I have a strong connection with New Mexico’s culture.”   -Jeremy Ray.  The mask contains pieces from chili peppers and yucca plant.


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