Mummifying Alan: Egypt’s Last Secret (Channel 4)

Rachel Cooke is spooked by the resurrection of an ancient post-death ritual.

Mummifying Alan: Egypt's Last Secret
Channel 4

So, I braved Mummifying Alan (24 October, 9pm), a documentary in which Alan Billis, a taxi driver from Torquay, donated his body to an archaeological chemist called Stephen Buckley in order that it might be preserved after his death, like beef jerky, for all eternity. And, in the end, it wasn't so bad.

The worst part was evisceration: the removal of his major organs via a four-inch incision in his side. During this bit, I abandoned my desk - I was watching the documentary on my computer - and kept moving backwards until the screen was so small that the pathologist might have been a fishmonger and Alan's 28-foot intestine a particularly large squid. I tried hard not to think about the squelching sounds and the producers helped me with this by providing a relentlessly dramatic and chipper soundtrack. I also sucked on a mint, just in case.

We do live in strange times. It seems that it's now OK to show a dead man's body on television over a prolonged period of time (some
80 minutes). On the other hand, his genitals were strictly out of bounds (they were decorously covered throughout). Was I upset by seeing the dead Alan? Not really, though hearing his voice, recorded before his death from lung cancer and then played back while various scientists poked at his body, was more unsettling. No, if I am going to be honest about this, I was more weirded out by Buckley, who, as part of his research, had preserved some 200 pigs' legs in a shed in his garden and had a
life-sized replica of a mummy in his upstairs bedroom. That he and his partner, an Egyptologist called Joann Fletcher, live in Scarborough seemed only to add to the creepiness.

Fletcher was filmed in Egypt visiting various ancient sites. In the beating sun, she wore voluminous black clothes and carried a black umbrella. When she talked about dead pharaohs, something odd happened to her face: it literally glowed. Not to be unkind - I know their academic CVs are about a mile long - but Buckley and Fletcher had an Addams Family vibe that left you wondering about their home lives.

Anyway, back to Alan. After his death on 14 January, his body was despatched to the Medico-Legal Centre in Sheffield, where the process of mummification was to be carried out. Emptied of internal organs, he was stuffed with bags of linen so that his silhouette - including his beer belly - would be preserved. He was then sprayed with sesame oil and poached in a bath of natron, a salt well known to the ancient Egyptians. Thirty-five days later, all leathery and brown, he was removed from this watery bed and his orifices were filled with pine resin, a natural insecticide. After this, he was bandaged. How did his wife, Jan, feel? A cheerier woman you could not hope to meet. "Well, I never do!" she said, her hands running over his linen-wrapped body. "Asleep, just as normal." As I write, Alan remains in Sheffield. So far, Jan has not requested a burial.

Did Buckley's recipe work? Apparently. When the bandages came off, the body was stable: no maggots. What's more, Alan's face was intact, which is important: the ancients believed that, as the mummy is entombed, the soul must be able to recognise the body. Alan's mummy was, Buckley thought, as good as any from Egypt's 18th dynasty, the period when the very best were produced. Fletcher gazed on Alan's face and wept tears of purest joy.

I must admit that, at the start, I was uncertain about this one. Lately, the words "Channel 4" and "good taste" seem rarely to go together. Taboo-breaking for the sake of it isn't just tiresome, it's often sickening, too. But I was wrong - at least, in part. This was sombrely done. Every expert involved seemed to want to do their best by Alan's body. The pathology assistant, a plain-speaking Sheffield woman, performed her duties with particular gentleness.

Then again, forget the ancient Egyptians. It's our own attitudes that interest me. According to funeral directors, people honk their horns impatiently at slow cortèges these days. I still worry that films such as this one are another symptom of our increasing disconnectedness from death - and, as if to prove my point, the more one stared at Alan, the harder it became to believe that he had ever been alive at all.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 31 October 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Young, angry...and right?