Forever Yours

Move Over, ALCOR. Phoenix-based Preserve A Life wants to make sure the dearly departed are ready for their close-ups.

Even before the company came about, more and more people were choosing cremation, online memorials and "personalized" services planned by the dearly departed in the manner of weddings and bar mitzvahs. But Preserve A Life hasn't abandoned tradition; some of what it offers has roots in the burial techniques of the ancient Egyptians, but with a modern twist and without any of the troublesome religious dictates.

Indeed, since the 10-year-old Canadian corporation quietly transplanted itself to the Valley's sunnier climes last spring, setting up shop in an abandoned medical facility just south of Van Buren Street, 30 deceased have been humidermied at the facility using one of two methods: traditional taxidermy, wherein a human body is shorn of its skin and hair, the skeleton and internal organs disposed of (either through burial, cremation or tissue donation), and the remainder mounted over a mannequin made to order; or freeze-dried with the internal organs intact, the corpse drained of all fluid and consequently only a fraction of its original weight.

These human "replicants," as the 57 employees of Preserve A Life refer to them, are then hand-delivered to next of kin, and installed according to the family's wishes. Children have been posed on bicycles and skateboards, grandmothers in rocking chairs, and grandfathers playing boccie ball. One woman wanted her husband posed on his favorite Harley wearing a Hells Angels motorcycle jacket, while in the case of a lesbian couple, the surviving woman wanted her longtime companion dressed in a Frederick's of Hollywood French maid outfit, cut so as to reveal her buttocks and bosom. And in one of the most disturbing trends, some casualties of the Iraq war have even been mounted in full dress uniform, and posed saluting or waving the American flag.

"We'll do almost anything to accommodate a client," claims Bryce Cunningham, 52, CEO and co-founder of the company. "We have had husbands ask for their wives to be enhanced using saline implants, and we can do this, using the latest plastic surgery methods."

At nearly 6 feet tall with a muscular build and a military bearing borne of his stint in Canada's super-secret, elite Army commando unit JTF2 (Joint Task Force II), Cunningham is a perpetual motion machine of a man, both super-salesman and hardheaded businessman. After he took a bullet for the Maple Leaf in the mid-'90s during a daring raid on a white supremacist outpost in northern Ontario, wherein three of his comrades lost their lives, Cunningham retired from the service. He was planning to devote himself exclusively to running the family's tailoring business, which his father had left him, when he made the acquaintance of the mysterious, enigmatic Dr. Geoffrey Crittenden at a local numismatics society conference. A former chief pathologist with Canadian Science Council, Crittenden's hobby was taxidermy, and he had radical ideas about how to mesh medical science with modern taxidermy. By his own admission, Cunningham soon fell under the spell of the visionary doctor, and a partnership was born.

The pair set up shop in East Vancouver with only a handful of employees, garnering customers mainly by word of mouth. Cunningham took care of the business and legal side (though he had never formally practiced, he had gotten his juris doctorate from the University of British Columbia College of Law before entering the military), while Crittenden focused on actual "post-life preservations," as Cunningham calls them. In time, Crittenden, now 56, went on to perfect the taxidermy process now known as humidermy, wherein human skin is essentially pickled in a top-secret formula of various chemical compounds. According to Cunningham, the result is soft and amazingly lifelike skin that can be maintained indefinitely with a minimum amount of maintenance by adoring families.

"It's like Colonel Sanders' blend of 11 herbs and spices, except that no one's being eaten," says Cunningham, smiling but half-serious. "Of course, the 'recipe,' if you will, is proprietary. But we have reason to believe that human epidermal cells treated with this process will last indefinitely. We give a lifetime warranty, and if it were legally possible to give more than a lifetime warranty, we would."

Cunningham struts with pride as he shows off Preserve A Life's state-of-the art, 62,000-square-foot facility. It's divided into four parts. The first deals with pre-taxidermied treatment of the body, and there are a number of steel bathtubs in which deceased persons are submerged into a yellowish, translucent goop. The entire room is refrigerated, so there's minimal decomposition, and the bodies look like so many children's dolls encased in lemon Jell-O. After about a week of this, the corpses are placed on a conveyor belt where they're transported either to a freeze-drying chamber or to the skinning and tanning workroom -- where it's taxidermy the old-fashioned way.

"I wish they were all freeze-dried, to tell you the truth," confesses Cunningham, as he shows off a huge cylindrical tube that can hold up to six bodies at a time. "This freeze-dryer completely eliminates the need for us to dispose of the skeleton or the viscera, as is necessary with our traditional humidermy process. There, the next of kin can choose to have everything but the skin returned to them for burial or cremation. Or they could donate it to science, and we'll ship it out to a university for them.

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