This article originally ran April 4, 2008.
Inside a bronze-colored pyramid off Interstate 15 in Salt Lake City, Corky Ra, the founder of the homegrown spiritual group, Summum, is reportedly submerged in a vat of mummification fluids.
The man who was born Claude "Corky" Rex Nowell and raised in the The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints died at the end of January, said a Summum official. He was 63.
"Corky was infectious . . . always playful . . . just an ordinary guy," said Su Menu, one of three officers appointed several years ago by Ra, who in 1980 legally changed his name to Summum Bonum Amon Ra. "But he was a taskmaster. He wanted people to become responsible for their own lives . . . He brought me closer to myself and who I am."
Menu, 57, got choked up this week as she spoke about Ra and the religious community he created in 1975. It was the first time she had agreed to be interviewed since his death, which she would only say was the result of "complications" from late-onset post-traumatic stress disorder from his time in Vietnam and chronic back pain.
Summum, a Latin term meaning "the sum total of all creation," made national headlines Monday when the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear an appeal from the city of Pleasant Grove, which wants to block Summum from displaying its own monument beside the Ten Commandments in a municipal park. That monument, if erected, would include Summum's seven guiding principles.
But Menu, a piano teacher whose legal name is Summum Bonum Neffer Menu (though she professionally goes by her birth name, Sue Parsons), didn't want to talk about the legal case; she'd rather leave that to lawyers. She was willing to offer a glimpse into the often misunderstood belief system she's subscribed to for more than 30 years, one that's steeped in meditations, uses sacramental wine and practices its own brand of mummification.
"We're not weirdos. We're just normal people trying to follow a spiritual path," she said. "We aren't necessarily mainstream, that's for sure, but so what? There are so many people who are fed up with [the mainstream] anyway."
Even so, Summum has plenty in common with other religions, Menu said. "All religions, in some way or other, had a founder" who experienced visitations from someone or some power, she said. Why should Ra's encounters in the 1970s with "advanced beings," which he wrote about in his book, Summum: Sealed Except to the Open Mind, be any more suspect than those of, say, Joseph Smith? Plus, it's not like the adherents are hurting anybody, she added.
"Summum's philosophy is all religions are correct for the individuals who are following that path because that's where they feel comfortable," she said. "Ultimately, we all are going the same direction."
The bookshelves in the Summum offices are lined with publications offering diverse teachings. There's one of Ra's books, Sexual Ecstasy for Ancient Wisdom, mixed in with The Tibetan Book of the Dead and The Egyptian Book of the Dead. Also prominent are books on meditation from Osho, or Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, a renowned Indian mystic and guru.
Too often, people try to "label" Summum, put it in a spiritual box, Menu said. Unless you've experienced what the meditations can bring to your life, the power that vibrates in the group's pyramid sanctuary (off limits to outsiders right now because Ra is in there), it's impossible to understand or fully explain, she said. And she gets the skeptics; she was once one of them.
Menu grew up in the Midwest, in a "traditional Christian background," but said by the time she went off to school she realized it "didn't satisfy my soul."
She was turned on to Transcendental Meditation, a Hindu practice she followed for years. After moving to Utah with her then-husband, now ex, the couple met Ra, whom she first thought was nuts. But the more she opened up and allowed herself to hear him, his lessons made sense to her.
Summum followers "believe in one source," she said, but they "don't necessarily give it a name. We don't call it God."
The community is "organized as a church," but isn't a formal one, Menu continued. It doesn't require attendance, which makes determining membership numbers difficult. Menu estimated that there are "hundreds of thousands" of people globally who have tapped into Summum's teachings, "but once they learn the meditations, they're free to go live their own lives."
Ra used to travel to other pyramid sanctuaries in places such as California, Arizona and Florida. But as his PTSD got worse in his final years, he stayed in Utah, Menu said. The Salt Lake City pyramid, the only Summum sanctuary around at this point, draws about 10 to 15 adherents for Saturday meetings, which these days amount to readings from Ra's old lectures, Menu explained. The meetings are broadcast online, however, so she said others - from areas as far-flung as Georgia and Ireland - tune in technologically.
Key to the Summum practice are the meditations, of which there are many. Some are in an ancient language Menu cannot name or translate, which she said is unimportant because "it's not about what's being said anyway. It's about the feeling." Others are in English. And still another variety, like the Meditation of Sexual Ecstasy, are about actions.
"It's a practice of sexuality that two intimate partners can do with each other . . . to establish an orgasm that will last a long time," Menu explained. "The mind is silent, and it becomes a meditation."
Another practice that grabs attention is the group's modern mummification process.
Behind Menu, on a metal counter and next to an unopened bag of chips, was Amber. The feral cat, adopted by the community, was hit by a car and died about eight years ago. She was wrapped in gauze and encased in resin, "a cocoon to keep her from drying out," Menu explained. The cat was positioned in half of the bronze mummiform, sculpted by Stan Watts, a well-known artist who's done work for the LDS Church, that will become her final resting place.
The spirit is "constantly evolving," she said, and preserving the body keeps it calm, helping it to "move toward that progression."
Summum has mummified up to 50 animals, including Menu's standard poodle, Maggie, who she said (at a mummification cost of about $12,000) now stands in the pyramid with other beloved pets. Menu said she plans to be mummified herself, and will someday be joined by Maggie in the mausoleum that's being constructed beneath the Summum property.
Ra, however, is the first human to be mummified. Outside the pyramid are gravemarkers for Summum practitioners who passed on before the process was developed. One of them is Michael Burdell, the lawyer who was shot and killed in 1985 by Ronnie Lee Gardner during an escape attempt at a Salt Lake City courthouse. His is just one example of the variety of people drawn to Summum.
Each day, for 77 days after his death, Ra is being visited in the pyramid by at least one of his officers who sit with him to read his "spiritual will." The group practices "mummification and transference," and reciting the spiritual will, written by the deceased, serves as a guide for the spirit, a road map or reminder of where it wants to go.
Ra, who had two children from a first marriage and was divorced twice, asked in his spiritual will to remain in the mummification solution for six months, Menu said. After that he will be wrapped and placed in a sealed mummiform.
She isn't sure what will happen to the community now that Ra is gone, but she's comfortable sitting in the "right here, right now," knowing that the essence of who she is has already been developed through the meditations.
"Nobody's ever going to be Corky," she said, "but that doesn't mean what Summum is won't go on."
JESSICA RAVITZ can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org" Target="_BLANK">email@example.com or 801-257-8776. Send comments to the religion editor at firstname.lastname@example.org" Target="_BLANK">email@example.com.