Mummification for a Price

Associated Press Writer Associated Press, June 28, 2000
By Hannah Wolfson

SALT LAKE CITY -- If burial sounds boring and cremation leaves you cold, here's another idea: mummification.
This isn't your standard wrap, either. We're talking high-tech interment, a combination of ancient art and tomorrow's science. The basic procedure can run about $63,000, according to Summum, a Salt Lake City religious group that says there is little use in shopping around.

"We're the only ones worldwide that do modern mummification," said Corky Ra, Summum's founder and leader.

Think of mummification as just another option for those who don't want to go out the old-fashioned way.

There are already burials at sea, burials in space, chrome-edged caskets for Harley-Davidson buffs and coffins customized with computer software. The ashes of the dearly departed can be dropped from a plane, entombed in a coral reef or used to grow bonsai trees.

"There has been a trend in funeral service over the past decade or so toward more personalized and individualized funeral service rituals," said Kelly Smith, spokesman for the National Funeral Directors Association. Summum started researching mummification in 1979, practicing on 30 cadavers contributed by a local medical school. Its method is more advanced than traditional mummification, which involved a salt-like preservative called natron and yards of linen.

In a warehouse behind the gleaming metal pyramid Summum uses for its services, modern-day mummies are cleaned and drained of blood before being soaked for up to six months in a vat of preservation fluid that Ra calls his "secret formula." Afterward, the corpse is covered with lanolin and wrapped with gauze.

Then comes a dozen coats of polyurethane rubber, which dries as tough as a tire, followed by layers of fiberglass bandages, which are used to set the body in the desired position. A bronze mummiform much like those found in the ancient pyramids provides the final layer of protection, and the body is sealed inside with a resin.

Ra got a patent for the procedure, and in 1985 showed it off at a funeral directors' convention in Las Vegas. The reaction was chilly. "Getting a funeral director to do something different is like moving a mountain," Ra said. "And this is really different."

Summum's general philosophy incorporates aspects of organized religion into a sort of new-age spirituality that includes meditation, science fiction and reincarnation.

Summum, a nonprofit organization, has mummified several pets ($9,000 per cat, $20,000 per dog), but is still waiting for its first human body. Ra said 137 people have paid in advance to be mummified once they die. Sue Menu, who leads a meditation class, signed up 10 years ago. "It just felt like it was what I wanted to have done," she said. "To be honest, I hadn't really thought much about it because I was fairly young and I hadn't really even thought about death."

The average traditional funeral costs about $7,000, including burial. Basic cremation is between $1,100 and $1,500.

Mummification is far pricier - $12,000 for the basic mummification process, plus $36,000 for the simplest bronze mummiform. Then there's the cost of shipping a body to Salt Lake City, about $5,000; and arrangements and mausoleum space, which the group estimates at at least $5,000. "The advantage to mummification unravels when you compare prices," Smith said.

Ra likes to joke that everyone who signs a contract seems to live forever. "People always ask, 'When is your first person going to die so you can mummify them?"' Ra said. "All of our people are in really good health. I don't know anybody even near death."

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