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Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Meet the Tutankhamun of Torquay: Terminally ill taxi driver who chose to have his body mummified for a Channel 4 documentary

By Colin Fernandez

One ruled over a vast kingdom from his royal palace by the Nile. The other reigned over the roads from behind the wheel of his taxi in Torquay.

But despite their vastly different lives, and the thousands of years between them, King Tutankhamun and Alan Billis have one important thing in common.

The late Mr Billis has become the first man to be mummified in the style of the ancient Egyptians for at least 3,000 years.

Making history: The late Alan Billis and his wife Janet, before he became the first man to be mummified Egyptian style for at least 3,000 years

Using the techniques that preserved Tutankhamun’s body after his death in 1323BC, scientists embalmed the 61-year-old following his death from lung cancer.

Mr Billis, who loved watching documentaries, agreed to have his body preserved after seeing an advertisement from a television company looking to film the process.

His wife Janet, 68, said: ‘He just said, “I’ve just phoned someone up about being mummified.” I said, “You’ve what?” I thought here we go again. It’s just the sort of thing you would expect him to do.’

But Mrs Billis and the couple’s three grown-up children gave his decision their blessing, and the resulting programme – Mummifying Alan: Egypt’s Last Secret – is due to be screened on Channel 4 on Monday.

The experts: Professor Vanezis, Dr Buckley, Dr Fletcher and Maxine Coe with a mummified Alan Billis before them

The mummy: Dr Stephen Buckley with mummified Mr Billis

Taxi driver Mr Billis, who has been dubbed Torquay’s Tutankhamun, explained his unusual decision in the documentary, saying: ‘People have been leaving their bodies to science for years, and if people don’t volunteer for anything nothing gets found out.’

Over a period of several months following his death in January, Mr Billis’s internal organs were removed and kept in jars, with the exception of his brain and heart.

His skin was covered in a mixture of oils and resins and bathed in a solution of Natron, a salt found in dried-up river beds in Egypt.

After a month in a glass tank at the Medico-Legal Centre in Sheffield, which houses the city’s mortuary, his body was taken out, placed in a drying chamber and wrapped in linen.

Dr Stephen Buckley of the University of York, who helped research Egyptian mummification techniques before the programme, said Mr Billis’s body could now last several millennia.

And wherever Mr Billis goes, a folder full of drawings by his grandchildren goes with him.

In an interview with the Radio Times, Mrs Billis said: ‘I didn’t find it upsetting. There wasn’t anything scary.

Mummified: Alan Billis becomes the first person to undergo the procedure performed here by Maxine Coe and Tim

Ancient techniques: Mr Billis has his body preserved using the same methods as were used on Tutankhamun. Pictured is the Valley of the Kings in Egypt

'I think it was because you could see they all took such good care of Alan. When I did eventually watch the film and saw his mummified face, you could see it was still him, still very much Alan. “I won’t be Tutankhamun, I’ll be Tutanalan,” he used to say.

‘The involvement in the television programme kept him occupied, took his mind off the illness.’

As well as Dr Buckley, the team of experts behind the mummification included Dr Joann Fletcher, Maxine Coe and forensic pathologist Peter Vanezis. Professor Vanezis said he was pleased with the result, adding: ‘The skin itself has this leathery appearance which indicates that he has become mummified all over.

‘It makes me very confident that his tissues have been mummified correctly and in a very successful manner.’

Mr Billis’s mummy is expected to stay in Sheffield until the end of 2011. It will then be studied by scientists researching decomposition.

Television viewers will see on Channel 4 how the former taxi driver was mummified



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