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SALT LAKE CITY — On the west side of Salt Lake City, amidst bland warehouses and the hum of I-15 traffic, the Summum Pyramid strikes a stark contrast with its surroundings. Nearly 30 feet high and accessible only through a metal hatch that rises up and out like the door of a Delorean, the Pyramid has presided over 707 Genesee Avenue since 1979. This is the primary instruction and worship center for Utah-based religion Summum. It’s also where the group performs ancient mummification rituals.
Summum’s reverence for pyramids dates back to its origin. Claude “Corky” Nowell founded the church in 1975, claiming to have visited extraterrestrial beings in a pyramid, where they taught him life-changing concepts about creation, the nature of the universe and eternal destiny.
The first of Nowell’s visions took place in his Utah apartment, though he described it as an out-of-body experience that underscored the importance of pyramids to the religion he later established:
"Instantly, I opened my eyes and found myself standing next to an enormous pyramid. … Passing through the wall, I found myself in a large room resonant with light radiating from the air. The walls, floor and ceiling looked as if they were made of very thick glass. Ahead of me, about 30 feet away, stood a group of individuals. They looked like humans, yet they were different. … Their facial features and bodies were so perfectly formed, it seemed as if they were divine in their physical appearance. … They established a high-level telepathic link with my mind, and instantaneously I understood them.”
Frightened by this first encounter, Nowell questioned his sanity and wondered if it had been a drug-induced hallucination.
“For a period of weeks I was very afraid of telling anyone about it,” he later explained in a television interview, “because I thought I had gone crazy myself. Initially, I thought some of the guys from the company I worked at had put LSD in a donut.”
Nowell’s visions became more frequent and he soon felt compelled to share his new teachings with others. He began writing a book dedicated to his new belief system, entitling it “Summum: Sealed Except to the Open Mind.” He founded Summum and further developed the philosophies that now define the group. He even had his name legally changed to Summum Bonum Amon Ra, though he went by an informal version that juxtaposed his childhood nickname with the name of the Egyptian sun god: Corky Ra.
- The body is bathed and thoroughly cleansed.
- An incision is made and the internal organs are removed and cleansed. They are then placed back into the body.
- The body is soaked in liquid preservatives. The incision is left open during this stage to further treat the organs.
- The body is cleansed and covered with special lotion.
- The body is wrapped in multiple layers of cotton gauze.
- The body is sealed in a polyurethane membrane, followed by a layer of fiberglass and resin.
- The body is taken into the Pyramid for religious rites.
- The body is encased in a decorative layer of bronze or stainless steel, which is called the mummiform. Mummiforms can be customized with artistic designs, gold plating, and a mask of the face, resembling an Egyptian sarcophagus.
- The body is sealed inside the mummiform with amber resin.
- Any openings in the mummiform are welded closed.
- The mummiform is then taken to its final resting place.
The unusual practice of mummification was introduced as a basic tenet of the church in 1975. Since that time, Summum’s followers have conducted extensive research to refine their techniques.
Prior to Corky Ra’s death in 2008 only animals like dogs, cats, birds and rodents had been mummified, so it was appropriate that Summum’s leader was the first human to be mummified in accordance with the group’s tradition. His body now resides in a stunning, gold-plated sarcophagus inside the Pyramid. The gold features intricate designs and symbols, with arms crossed wing-like on the front similar to Tutankhamen’s iconic sarcophagus. The facemask is exceptionally lifelike, which oddly alleviates the awkwardness one might feel standing only a few feet from the mummified remains of an enigmatic religious leader.
Operating as what the Discovery Channel has called “the world’s only commercial mummification business,” Summum currently offers its services for humans and pets alike. Mummification provides a financial boon for the group — the IRS grants religious exemption based on the practice and it charges a large sum to customers. The cost to mummify a pet is somewhere in the range of $20,000, and it costs around $70,000 to mummify a human.
Summum’s mummification process uses chemicals that are sometimes used in genetic engineering, which Corky Ra claimed would preserve the body’s DNA and genetics. This is relevant because Summum teaches that there is no such thing as a true death; rather, followers believe that when a person dies it is merely a transformation in which he enters a different state of consciousness. A well-preserved body is essential for a proper transition.
Corky Ra also had another reason for wanting his DNA intact: cloning. In an interview for the television program "One Step Beyond,” he explained:
“Two thousand years from now, or maybe even 500 years from now, one of you probably out there will be digging up my mummy, and with the modern technology then you’ll be able to clone my body. This will be an exciting thing for both me and you.”
Thousands of clients have paid to have their loved ones mummified by Summum’s experts. While this revenue is sufficient for the time being, it’s unclear what the future holds for the group. It has a strong core of followers, but many of the early adherents are getting on in age. Replenishing the ranks is difficult and Summum has struggled, like many other religions, to attract dedicated young followers.
For now, the Pyramid is a lively center of activity. Regular philosophy studies are held on Wednesdays and Saturdays, and the group’s mummification experts continue to use the Pyramid for religious rites as they preserve customers’ loved ones. Countless businesses in the surrounding area have come and gone, but for 33 years, the Summum Pyramid has presided over its unique corner of Salt Lake City.
Grant Olsen joined the ksl.com team in 2012 as a contributing writer. He covers travel, outdoor adventures, and other interesting things.