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The Nation | COLUMN ONE

It's a Wrap for All Eternity

A Utahan says he has convinced 1,400 people to become mummies in the afterlife. But he's still waiting for one of his customers to die.

June 21, 2003|David Kelly | Times Staff Writer

SALT LAKE CITY — 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.

"Tell them what happens when you get buried in a grave," Ra said, looking over at fellow funeral director Ron Temu.

Temu explained the gory business of human decomposition, leaving some wide-eyed and ashen.

The point made, Ra told the audience how to avoid such a fate.

"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 so far, 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 -- one he says exists nowhere else in the country.

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 back at the funerary practices of one of the world's oldest civilizations and finding comfort there.

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."

So far, he says, he's 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, while 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, like the others who have agreed to the process, signed a contract with Summum. Like them, she will pay for her eventual mummification by making monthly payments on a standard life insurance policy she took out, 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. Since then he has promoted the process in lectures, on the radio, in documentaries, on the old Phil Donahue show and on the Internet.

The former Mormon missionary and heavy-equipment salesman even changed his name in 1980 from Corky Nowell to Corky Ra, which he says means "worker on creation" in ancient Egyptian. Later, he founded a church espousing the beliefs of pharaonic Egypt.

Ra said he tested his formula on animals, and after nearly 20 years there has been no cell decomposition. Temu said their colleague, John Chew, former head of mortuary science at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla., mummified human cadavers using Ra's recipe. Chew, who met Ra at a funeral industry convention, has been a collaborator ever since and has been selected by Summum to do its first human mummy.

"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 yet.

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 now 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.

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