She died in 1744 but you could be mistaken for thinking Sarah Hare is still very much alive. David Blackmore tells the remarkable story of how she has been immortalised.

Tucked away in a dark corner of the Hare Chapel in Stow Bardolph, near Downham Market, is a terrifyingly fascinating memorial that is not for the faint-hearted. It is by far the most extraordinary monument out of the 20 memorials which date from the early 17th century right up to the late 20th century.

It sits inside a plain mahogany cabinet in the north-west corner of the chapel and a bronze plate tells us that it contains Sarah Hare who died in 1744.

Open up the cabinet door and there she is – life-size in wax with curly hair, bright blue eyes, a white tucked silk dress and red silk satin shawl draped over her body peeping out from behind while silk curtains.

Nothing can prepare you for the frisson as the cabinet door swings open. Then you cast your eyes upon her and realise the door to the cabinet is not without reason – she is terrifying with her face clumpy and warted and her eyes instantly locking on to yours.

And I'm not surprised, she has sat there through two centuries of wars, kings, winters and the rise and fall of empires.

Nothing in her life was as remarkable as this long, silent immobile vigil and you are left wondering: If she could know, would she still want this immortality?

But at the same time you gasp at the delight of seeing something so astoundingly lifelike and learning that it is the only funeral wax effigy outside of Westminster Abbey – an indication perhaps of the wealth of the Hare family at the time.

She was about 50 when she died and it was her own wish to be immortalised in this way.

Her will states: 'I desire to have my face and hands made in wax with a piece of crimson satin thrown like a garment in a picture hair upon my head and put it in a case of mahogany with a glass before and fix'd up so near the place were my corps lyes.'

The directions given in this will were carried out to the letter but it still remains a mystery as to why this little-known country lady wanted a wax effigy made of herself.

Lady Rose Hare, custodian of the Hare estate, said: 'I am surprised that there isn't a lot of interest in the wax effigy of Sarah Hare considering how rare it is.

'Nobody knows why she wanted it done. She wasn't well-known and the only other similar wax effigies are in Westminster Abbey of famous people. But you can see from her will that she puts out what she wants exactly and obviously had very strong feelings about it.'

She continued: 'We are not sure if it is an actual death mask but we are sure the hands were modelled on her own hands.

'The wig is also her own wig with real hair but, interestingly, I have been told the wig was 20 years behind the times because country ladies hadn't caught up with ladies from London.'

Lady Hare added it is unclear where Sarah Hare's body was buried because there is nothing in the church yard but believes it may be under the wax effigy.

What is also remarkable is that this effigy still remained – up until the 1980s – just as it was made without tampering of any kind and this in itself is rather unique.

Nevertheless, over a long period, it had become clear to the late Sir Thomas and Lady Hare, that steps would have to be taken to secure Sarah Hare from the further depredations of mice, moth, dump and dust.

A considerable research was undertaken on their behalf to discover the treatment to be adopted and to find the right people to handle the careful conservation of such a remarkable survival.

In 1984, Jean Fraser, one-time studio manager of Madame Tussauds, was approached and in due course was invited to undertake the delicate work of treating Sarah Hare's wax effigy.

Her comments after examining the model were: 'The damage to the effigy was not great considering its age.

'The main problems being the considerable amount of surface dirt, some surface cracking into which the dirt had penetrated in places, substantial damage to the hair from moths and two broken fingers on each hand.

'There appeared to be very little in the way of past restoration, which is very rare in an effigy of this age. It seems prudent therefore, to do as little as possible in order to preserve the original character.'

In November 1984, the wax effigy of Sarah Hare was lifted from the cabinet and the costume removed from the display stand to which the effigy had been fixed for 240 years since her death.

Then around two years later, the effigy was replaced in the now-repaired cabinet and locked up again behind a glass door – restored for future generations to cast their eyes on.

On seeing Sarah Hare's effigy when visiting Stow Bardolph in the 1960s, Prof Charles Mitchell, of Bryn Mawr College in America, noted: 'The effigy of Sarah Hare belongs to a very ancient tradition of lifelike funeral images and, more recently, things like the wax effigies in Westminster Abbey and the wax images in the Annuziata in Florence.

'What makes it especially interesting and precious, however, is in the exact way it returns to classic Roman precedent.

'Pliny the Elder in his Natural History describes the funerals of noble Roman families; how images of the dead were carried in funeral processions, and how the wax heads and busts were afterwards taken back to the atrium or courtyard of the family house where they were preserved on the surrounding wall in wooden cupboards together with inscriptions recording their name and lineage.

'Cicero [Roman philosopher] also in his oratio in Pisonem talks of these imagines fumosse – the smoky images of ancestors, smoked by generations of fires in the courtyard which indicated the antiquity of the family.

'Well there at Stow Bardolph, we have the properly dusty image in Sarah Hare still surviving in her family chapel, which is a sort of atrium, surrounded on all sides of it by the images and monuments of her kindred.

'The use of the word effigies in the inscription pretty clearly shows that she and her brother knew exactly what they were about in ordering and setting up such a memorial.'