Catherine Lanza, a 33-year-old legal secretary who lives in Los Angeles, knows precisely what will happen to her after she dies. First, a hole will be cut in her skull, her brain will be removed and the cavity will be filled with resins. Next, her internal organs—save the heart—will be removed and placed in jars. Then her body will be stuffed with herbs and submerged for two weeks in a preserving solution. Upon removal, she’ll be coated with myrrh, scented with frankincense and wrapped in silk and linen. Finally, her body will be placed in a sarcophagus made from noncorrosive metal and lined with blue velvet. Catherine Lanza plans to be mummified.
“Mummification beats being embalmed, covered with dirt and left to rot among the earthworms and gophers, seven feet under,” says Summum Bonum Amen Ra, 41, a Salt Lake City resident who believes that the pharaonic form of burial—out of fashion for a couple of millennia—deserves to be reincarnated. Amen’s real mummy knew him as Claude Nowell, the name under which he made a living managing a welding supply company until 1975. Then a sudden “spiritual awakening” prompted him to found Summum, a group he describes as dedicated to “understanding the underlying forces of the universe, laws so familiar to our old friends of Atlantis and Egypt.”
To help understand those forces, Amen decided, he needed to produce special wines, in a pyramid. “The pyramid acts as a womb of creation because of the incorporation of phi—’the divine proportion’—in its design,” says Amen. After months of wrangling with government officials, who gave in to his plea of “religious need,” Amen was allowed to construct the only federally bonded winery in Utah: a 1,600-square-foot shingled pyramid with a push-button door. “The nectars we produce in the pyramid are based on an ancient pre-Egyptian formula,” he says. Amen and his 30 followers create four types of beverage: the Nectar of Meditation, which is offered to the general public for $5 a bottle; the Nectar of Cause and Effect, used by Summum members as a “tool of personal evolution”; the Nectar of Neutralization, which Amen says helps modify erratic thinking, and the Nectar of Transformation, used to cleanse the body during mummification.
Nectar is nice, but mummification has put Summum on the map. For prices ranging from $7,700 (no frills) to $500,000 (gold leaf and jewels on your sarcophagus), Summum will set you up for the afterlife. Most of the ritual, says Amen, follows the expert advice written down long ago in the Egyptian Book of the Dead. But there have been modifications and improvements. Summum’s sarcophagi, for example, are airtight metal caskets that he calls mummiforms.
Once the mummified body is inside, “The casing will be purged with argon so no bacteria will grow. Then it will be placed in our pyramid for 77 days, where Summum members will take turns guiding the deceased through transference—the journey to another beginning. During transference,” he explains, “Summum members will first have to convince the person that he or she is dead. They won’t believe it—they’ll wonder why nobody is talking to them. We’ll communicate through telepathy. The deceased can choose to go to a heaven world, or go back into creation. They’ll be told to pick a womb of their choice.” Amen plans to place the sarcophagi in a granite chamber in Utah’s Manti La Sal mountains. In keeping with tradition, clients are encouraged to specify a few personal belongings they might want to take with them into the ever after. “A doctor might want to take his medical books along,” he suggests. “A jogger might want to take his running shoes.”
Amen’s other innovation is an economical pay-before-you-go plan that makes mummification—historically a prohibitively expensive process—affordable for the masses. For only $7 a month, just pennies a day, an insurance policy arranged by Amen will cover Summum’s low-end ceremonies. So far, 50 mummies-to-be have signed up. “A lot of people I work with have found out I want to have this done, and most say, ‘Why in hell do you want that?’ ” says Al Greco, 37, who works in a Salt Lake electrical supply warehouse. “I want to be at peace when I die. I am no longer scared of death.” Says Catherine Lanza, “A lot of people think I’m really weird for wanting to have this done someday; they think I’m gullible. But mummification made spiritual sense to me. It seemed like a more natural way to leave this life.”
Amen hasn’t mummified anyone yet, since none of his clients have died. But he wants you to know that he and his initiates have mummified cats, dogs and birds, and he’s sure he’s ready for the big challenge. “Your body will come out of the vat in perfect condition,” he promises, “like a pickle coming out of a sealed jar.”