When Alan Billis, a taxi driver from the English Riviera town of Torquay was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, he said he wanted to be buried with minimum fuss. No frills, no drama, just a cardboard box in the back garden would suffice.
As his wife, Jan nursed him in his final months of his life, Alan dropped another huge bombshell -as if his terminal illness wasn't enough. He told his wife, whom he had been married to since 1973, that he was to become a mummy after his death. His skin and organs were to be preserved by intentional exposure to chemicals and wrapped in bandages to see if science can recreate the so-called "best mummies" preserved by the 18th dynasty Egyptian rulers just over 3,000 years ago.
When Alan died of his cancer, aged 61 his body was taken, not to church for funeral, but to an archaeological chemist called Stephen Buckley. He had tested mummification on pig's trotters and recreated his garden shed in Sheffield with humidifiers and heating to emulate Egypt's hot, dry climate to run his tests. Alan had volunteered during his years, to an advertisement placed by Buckley to become a mummy. Jan said, "he was totally unsentimental about dying ,he wasn’t religious and he didn’t believe in an afterlife. His view was, when you’re dead you’re dead [and] that’s that."
He would become "Tutan-Alan" rather than "Tutankhamen."
At first and within hours of his death, experts and scientists began removing his organs. The Channel 4 documentary showed clearly a surgeon slicing through his naval, like a butcher cutting meat, and plunging his whole forearm in the Alan's now lifeless torso reaching for the all the major organs and removing them. The heart and brain (soul) were the only two organs that had to remain (as Egyptian tradition dictated). The rest was binned and then the body was washed with alcohol and pine resin solution, just as the Egyptians used as an anti-bacterial agent. Spices and sawdust was then packed inside the torso.
The problem is, as The Independent so aptly reported, there is no hieroglyphic version of "Embalming for Dummies". The ancient Egyptians kept the whole procedure for mummification a secret. It was sacrosanct to the point where hieroglyphics never gave a clue as to how or why they performed such a labour-intensive procedure. There again this is the same civilisation that built huge pyramids. Buckley's team were left to work out for themselves how to preserve a human body indefinitely.
An ancient Egyptian mummy
Alan's body then had beeswax embalmed over his whole body and then left to soak in a salt bath for five weeks before being moved to a drying chamber in a Sheffield laboratory for the wrapping of the bandages.
Alan's body was left for a further six weeks, to dry out. During this time, widow Jan visited the mummified body and in an emotional scene, pinched his flesh through the bandages. She was not present for the final unveiling.
A fully three months after his death, Egyptologists, scientists, body farm experts from America and Buckley's team unveiled the mummy. The result; an almost perfectly preserved body clearly recognisable as Alan Billis. Like the mummy of Yuya who was found along with that of his wife, Tuyu, in their tomb in the Valley of the Kings in 1905, Alan was well preserved with darkened, leathery skin.
Alan's body was at this point entombed in Sheffield University's morgue whereas 3,000-years ago 18th dynasty mummies in Egypt were placed inside tombs within pyramids.