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It was Timothy Braswell's 13th birthday, and the candles on his pistachio-flavored ice cream cake had already burned halfway down to the white and green frosting. With a noisemaker in one hand and a silver-and-red party hat on her head, Timothy's mom, Gloria, was growing more and more annoyed as her husband, Robert, looked on quietly.
"Come on, Timmy, blow out the candles before they melt the cake," she admonishes the dark-haired lad, who is suddenly full of himself now that he's entered his teen years.
"Why don't you get Granny to blow them out?" cracks Tim, gesturing toward the elderly lady seated to his right at the dining room table -- Robert's mother, Esther. She, too, is wearing a party hat, though it's cocked a tad to the side, making the casual observer think she may be suffering from some sort of paralysis.
"You know that Granny Esther can't do that," Gloria admonishes. "If you don't blow out the candles, then there'll be no presents for you, young man."
"Whatever!" spits Tim, ripping off his birthday hat and throwing it to the carpet. "This birthday sucks! I'm too old for this. I'm not a baby anymore. I want to go hang out with my friends."
Tim shoves past his mother and grandmother, and in the process, knocks Esther Dunlop, age 76, to the floor. Esther lies there unmoving; Tim's sister, Megan, picks up her grandmother and sets her back in the chair, straightening her hair and closing her mouth, which had popped open in the fall. The ease with which the skinny 14-year-old has righted the older lady is almost startling, given Esther's seemingly sturdy frame.
No one says anything about the cake or the candles, which have since burned themselves out and are sending up wisps of smoke, like incense at a Mass for the dead. The imagery is appropriate. What is not readily apparent from this scene is that Mrs. Dunlop expired in June because of a massive cerebral hemorrhage; she died instantly as she lay on the couch in the Braswells' home, where she had lived for several years, watching a rerun of her favorite show: CSI: Miami. What now sits before Timothy Braswell's melting ice cream cake -- blue hair and all -- is her lifelike, taxidermied corpse.
By all accounts, Dunlop had been a gentle, loving woman who relished looking after her grandchildren when not playing canasta with her friends or knitting colorful potholders for her daughter-in-law. She had moved in with her son's family just before Thanksgiving, 1998, after the untimely death of her second husband, Lawrence Dunlop, who had been shot to death after coming home from golf and surprising burglars in their home. The family was worried that she would be too lonely and depressed after the tragic deaths of two husbands. Robert's dad, William Braswell, had died after he was struck by lightning while hiking in the Santa Rita Mountains, south of Tucson, during an August 2 monsoon in 1967.
It almost goes without saying that Ahwatukee residents Gloria and Robert were devastated by the loss of the family matriarch. The thought of cremating or burying such a vital part of their clan seemed unbearable, and they feared further traumatizing their children, whom Esther had baby-sat since their births. Even before she moved in, Esther had lived in a Maryvale neighborhood that, over the years, had become low-income. For years, Robert had begged his mother to leave, but she had become almost as attached to some of the little Latino children on her street as she was to her own grandchildren. But after what happened to Lawrence, she decided it was time to go.
Just after her death last April 11, Dunlop's body was being held in cold storage at Scottsdale's Casper Mortuary Inc., when Gloria and Robert, after much soul-searching, decided that they wanted to take what for some might seem like drastic action. They came to the realization that they just couldn't let Granny Esther go.
At first, they discussed their grief, and their longing to keep Esther among the living, with their minister at Calvary Episcopalian Church. They then discussed the situation with the head mortician at Casper, who, in turn, discussed it with colleagues. Finally, about two weeks after Esther had died, a man knocked on the door of the Braswell residence when only Gloria was home. She doesn't usually let strangers in when Robert isn't there, but this man looked so kindly (he reminded her of her own late father) that she made an exception. George Canetti quickly told her that he had heard through the mortuary grapevine that she and her husband were looking for an alternative to death for Esther. He mentioned that a representative from ALCOR Corporation (the Scottsdale firm that freezes whole bodies and even heads for future reawakenings when medical science is more advanced) had first called his superiors, saying that the Braswell family was looking for something that ALCOR wasn't equipped to provide. Apparently, Casper mortician Ronald Gates had sought advice from ALCOR scientists.
As the two shared coffee and oatmeal cookies, Canetti gently pulled out a pamphlet from his inside breast pocket. It was from Preserve A Life, a company that had recently relocated from East Vancouver, British Columbia, to central Phoenix. He talked about a revolutionary new process known as "humidermy," in which Preserve A Life scientists essentially taxidermy human remains along the lines of a hunter's bounty -- like the deer or elk you might see at a lodge or the tiger in a diorama at a natural history museum.