Punk You!

To borrow a line from Demi Moore boy toy Ashton Kutcher, "You've been punked!" That's right, New Times' October 28 cover story 'bout a Valley firm named Preserve A Life -- which taxidermies deceased humans for "mountings" in the homes of loved ones, etc. -- was a spoof just in time for Halloween.

There's no kindly grandmother who's been stuffed and set in the living room, no freeze-dried newlywed bride laid out in a provocative pose on her widower's bed, no mounted heads on a Tempe businessman's downtown office wall, no stuffed little boy on a skateboard or in his Little League uniform.

The story and most of the photos were fabrications.

But don't feel bad about it, Phoenix. Producers for two ABC news shows, Primetime Live with Diane Sawyer, and 20/20, separately contacted Preserve A Life's voice mail, interested in doing stories on the company's creepy services. Both shows were disappointed to discover that it was all a prank, but 20/20 at least had a sense of humor about it.

Not so Primetime Live drone Emily Just, who left two messages for PAL CEO Bryce Cunningham. When Just was informed that by calling and asking to speak to Cunningham, she'd paid us -- the spoofers -- the ultimate compliment, she was highly annoyed. "Now, which part was complimentary?" asked the intentionally obtuse Just. Uh, the part where you fell for it.

How does New Times come up with this stuff? Well, the idea came from the twisted mind of an unusually perverse individual -- staff writer Esteban Sauer -- and the paper's editors jumped on the notion like it was an unclaimed Grey Goose martini.

Get it? "Esteban" is Spanish for Stephen, and "Sauer" is a reference to the last name, Lemons, with a German twist. It was one of the many clues provided to tip off careful readers. A handful of you spotted the rest. For example, the fax number listed in Preserve A Life's ad was a New Times number, and New Times owns the domain name

Moreover, we never listed the exact address of PAL's headquarters, and there's no "Casper" mortuary in greater Phoenix. The image of a PAL freeze-dryer was actually a black-and-white photo of an iron lung.

Readers had a more difficult time picking out the staged photos of the Braswell family, little Marvin Singer, or the lady with the "skin pillow," all created just for this story. The pic of the dead clown? Hey, that was real.

Indeed, to cut the suckers some slack, the spoof was wildly successful in large part because it seems within the realm of possibility.

After all, everyone's familiar with the whole thing about dead baseball slugger Ted Williams' head getting iced over at ALCOR in Scottsdale. Indeed, ALCOR's antics, in general, seem almost unreal. In Utah, there's a quasi-religious organization called Summum that offers modern mummification for both pets and humans. There have been instances of freeze-drying human corpses; one case was even executed by a Valley taxidermist and a local mortuary.

In Los Angeles, the immensely popular Body Worlds exhibition currently has on display about 100 human corpses that have been preserved with a process that replaces all body fluids with reactive polymers.

Plus, the trend in the funeral industry is away from traditional burials. Cremation is an increasingly common way of disposing of human remains. So it wouldn't be at all unusual to have granny up on the mantel in an urn.

All of which accounts for why the phone number and e-mail listed on the Preserve A Life Web site are still receiving messages two weeks after the article ran. As of the date that this fess-up went to press, the line had gotten more than 800 calls, and the Web site had received 200 e-mails and counting. This is not to mention the letters to the editor and phone calls directed to New Times.

Requests for PAL's color brochures came in from as far away as Wisconsin, Texas, and Washington state. Though most inquiries seemed to be from curiosity seekers, a sizable number expressed interest in PAL's services. Some got the joke and wished us a happy Halloween, while others tried to punk the punkers by stating that they wanted to preserve their loved ones, with certain sexual attributes enhanced.

One of our favorites: "My wife was recently killed in a sky-diving accident. I am inquiring about having her vagina mounted on my wall -- preferably about waist level -- or maybe [turned into] a change purse to carry around in my pocket."

And: "We're thinking of having Grandma freeze-dried. Can she be ground up and put in food? Or would we have to mix her with hot water and drink her like coffee? Can we have her chunked and made into jerky instead? She was tasty alive, and I can't wait to taste her dead."

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Stephen is a former staff writer and columnist at Phoenix New Times.
Contact: Stephen Lemons