“We are all equal in the presence of death,” an ancient proverb reads. King or commoner, we all deserve the same treatment. It’s this egalitarian postmortem spirit that’s connecting a modern British taxi driver and a 3000-year-old Egyptian king.
Alan Billis, a former cabbie from southwest England, passed away in January from terminal lung cancer. And, as many recently deceased do, he donated his body to science – though this science happens to be many millennia old.
Billis, who died at 61, is one of just a few modern men to be mummified in the precise style of King Tutankhamen. (American professor Bob Brier first used Egyptian techniques to mummify a body in 1994.) Indeed, the science of mummification has only recently been reconstructed, with incredibly few bodies having been preserved in such a manner for more than 3000 years.
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The BBC ran this story in early 2010 reporting that Channel 4 was looking for a donor to be mummified. Alan read a similar article and concluded that he’d be an ideal candidate. His wife Jan seemed oddly okay with his dying wish. “It’s just the sort of thing you would expect him to do,” she said. And so it was done. Upon Billis’ passing in January, Dr. Stephen Buckley, a chemist at Britain’s York University took the reigns. Buckley has spent his career studying and perfecting the technique that allowed for the preservation of King Tutankhamun after the Egyptian king’s death in 1323 BC.
No modern luxuries were afforded to Billis’ body during the process – in the lab, Buckley and his crew even recreated the hot, arid conditions of ancient Egypt to work. First, Billis’ organs were removed and replaced with small bags of linen to preserve his body’s form. The corpse was laid in a salt bath for more than a month, covered with oils, and wrapped with linen bandages to keep the body dry and well-preserved.
As natural as the drying process was its propensity for video. The amazing feat will be shown in a documentary airing on Channel 4 in the UK on Monday, Oct. 24. And if all goes to plan, Billis’ body will far outlast natural disasters, caustic environments and Dr. Buckley’s instructions. When future Earthlings discover the Billis’ mummified corpse, we bet they’ll be highly confused, too.