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Keep your look: Get mummified

Corky Ra poured a glass of red wine and cleared his throat. He was about to make a peculiar pitch, selling a death fit for a king.

"The moment between life and death is a pause," he said, sitting inside the 30-foot-high pyramid in his front yard. "It's the moment of rest before the next life."

Some of the 18 people in the room nodded knowingly, others seemed baffled.

"You can be like a moth that wraps itself in silk," he said. "You can be a chrysalis, and a chrysalis is a mummy."

Ra knows mummies. He doesn't unearth them from ancient tombs; he makes them at home. And, he says, 1,400 people have agreed to sign over life insurance policies worth at least $74,000 each to be mummified by his patented Permanent Body Preservation System.

For that kind of money, Summum Mummification offers this kind of guarantee.

"You will stay like this for eternity," Ra promises. "There will be no decomposition."

At a time when people are seeking novel ways to commemorate the deaths of loved ones, when ashes are being blasted into space and urns have taken on the shape of dolphins and sailboats, some are looking at the funerary practices of one of the world's oldest civilizations and finding comfort.

Shunning cremation as barbaric and repulsed by the thought of decomposing underground, they have arranged to be preserved in death like Egyptian pharaohs of antiquity.

"If you are embalmed with formaldehyde, two weeks after you go into the casket, the cells decompose and the body begins to eat itself," Ra said. "So you have a decomposing body in a $15,000 casket, 6 feet underground."

Ra says he has received requests from football players looking to be preserved in athletic poses, military men wanting to be mummified in uniform and a radio talk show host hoping to grasp a microphone for eternity. Some do it for religious reasons. Others think it offers a bit of immortality.

"Mummification seems a more civilized way to go than burning or burying," said Donna Gray, 60, of Salt Lake City.

Gray will pay for her eventual mummification by making monthly payments on a standard life insurance policy, naming Summum as the beneficiary.

"My kids think I have gone to the devil," she said.

After much experimentation, Ra perfected his mummification formula in 1985.

The former Mormon missionary and heavy-equipment salesman changed his name in 1980 from Corky Nowell to Corky Ra, which he says means "worker on creation" in ancient Egyptian.

Ra said he tested his formula on animals, and after nearly 20 years there has been no cell decomposition. Fellow funeral director Ron Temu said their colleague, John Chew, former head of mortuary science at Lynn University in Boca Raton, successfully mummified human cadavers using Ra's recipe at the school.

"It's not rocket science but (it's) a very difficult process to know what chemicals preserve the human and animal tissue without destroying the genetics and DNA," Ra said.

Yet his zeal for mummification has one major hitch: None of his customers has died.

There have been close calls. One client with cancer recently began deteriorating rapidly. Ra readied the stainless steel vat, the death mask, the rolls of gauze and the patented secret chemicals.

"He was going to be our first, but he seems to have pulled it together," said Ra, 59, looking vaguely dejected. "Many of our clients are young, so they aren't dying."

While they wait, Ra and Temu have mummified smaller fare: more than 200 dogs, cats, parrots, cockatiels, a pet rat and a finch.

"The finch was the smallest thing we did," Temu said. "I'd love to do one of those big white tigers from the Siegfried and Roy show."

He hasn't done any white tigers, but he did mummify Sue Menu's white poodle. The once vibrant pooch and boon companion stands encased in bronze in her Salt Lake City living room.

"Every once in a while when I dust her off I say, "How's it going, Mags?' " said the 52-year-old piano teacher, staring into the dog's metallic eyes. "I felt it was a fitting memorial for Maggie for all her companionship and loyalty to me."

Temu, a bespectacled man with an encyclopedic knowledge of the world's burial practices, looked proudly at his work.

"It really is an art piece, that's what makes it so expensive," he said of the $27,000 mummy. "If you take her out now, she will look the way she did the day she died."

Temu said taxidermy is cheaper, but it preserves just the skin, not the whole body and internal organs.

Some question the price and uniqueness of the process.

"This is an expensive vanity, but it doesn't mean there is anything wrong with it," said Joshua Slocum, interim executive director of the Funeral Consumers Alliance, a Vermont group that monitors cost and fraud in the funeral industry.

"My guess is that you can pickle anybody," said Lisa Carlson, a consumer advocate who has written books on funeral law and the funeral industry. Ra knows that he's bucking a trend, that most people today are reducing themselves to ashes at death, not preserving themselves for eternity.

But he's so confident in his product that he plans to build a small mausoleum beside his pyramid, housing the mummies of his friends.

"Everything changes and evolves," Ra said.

Modern mummification process

1

Before death

A plaster death mask is made of the living person's face. It will be affixed to the mummy when they die.

2

After death

The blood is drained and organs removed. The organs and body are submerged in a vat of chemical preservatives for at least 60 days.

3

The organs are sewn back into the body, which is then wrapped in gauze and coated with lanolin.

4

The body is painted with a blue polyurethane membrane and covered with a fiberglass coating.

5

The death mask is placed on the face.

6

The body is put in a sarcophagus and laid in a mausoleum.

Board

Plaster

Breathing straws

Mask

Mausoleum

Summum

Source: Summum

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