When London taxi driver Alan Billis discovered he was dying of lung cancer, he may not have seemed like an obvious candidate for a pharaoh’s farewell. But thanks to some enterprising scientists searching for one lucky person to donate his or her body for an old-school wrap-up using all of the techniques practiced by the ancient Egyptians, Billis, who died at 61, will be sticking around — as a mummy — for a very long time. Also sticking around is his widow, Jan, who took some time to phone me from the U.K. to talk about the U.S. version of the show detailing her husband’s preservation, “Curiosity: I Was Mummified” (Sun. Oct. 21 at 9:00 p.m. ET). She reveals she never asked her husband why he did it and also talks about how many times she’s watched the show that focuses on her husband’s body being covered in honey, soaked in salt water, then put in an oven at a slow bake. She also shows she has a very good sense of humor — without telling one mummy joke.
In the program, he says he saw an ad in the newspaper, called and signed up to be a modern mummy. Was it really that simple?
Yes. It was like that, yes. He’d read something in the newspaper, he phoned the number, and then he signed up.
Did he talk to you about his decision?
He didn’t ask, ‘Do you mind?’ But he wouldn’t have asked me, not at all.
It must have been a shock that your husband was going to be mummified, though, wasn’t it?
He often said things, like he was going to do this or that, but never actually did. So really to start, I thought, oh, this is another one of his fine things. But for once it actually did work out and he actually carried it through. From the very beginning, it wasn’t something I thought, isn’t this awful. It was, well, if that’s what’s what he wants to do.
Have you watched the show?
Yes, I watched it. Before it came out on the television, the lady from Blink said, look Jan, we’re going to bring it to you to watch before it comes out. I said, no. It’s not that I don’t like seeing Alan, though. I don’t want to see myself on the television. But she said, you need to see it before it goes out. It was very interesting. I’ve seen it three times now.
How was it to watch your husband being mummified?
It was fine. It really was fine. I think people think I’m very strange, but it didn’t make me upset. When you see me seeing him for the first time, I was, oh just look at you. I didn’t feel, oh dear, it’s Alan! I’m not like that. Alan always said when he was dead he was dead; it wasn’t him laying there. I wasn’t upset or anything. It’s a strange thing to say, but it was just normal.
Why do you think he decided to do this?
He liked to be the center of attention. And also, why I don’t know, but he’d think his grandchildren would forget him and he didn’t want them to forget him. He wanted there to be something a bit different to remember him by. The eight-year-old and the five-year-old and the 3-and-a-half year old, they see him every time his picture comes up on their computer. They love to wrap each other up like mummies and be like granddad. It isn’t something strange to them.
How did the rest of your family feel about this?
I expect a bit like me. They didn’t believe anything would come of it. They weren’t perturbed. If that’s what he wanted, that was it. I think he told the small ones, the grandchildren, as well. Because as soon as he knew about the cancer he told the grandchildren, he told all of them, so it wasn’t, ‘goodness gracious, granddad died.’ A lot of that had to do with our daughter. She was very open all the time, so they just all knew. So by the time he did die, it wasn’t anything really terrible.
What happens to him next? He could be around for thousands of years now.
I don’t know. Personally, I would think seeing they’ve gone to all this trouble, they would just keep him to see if he stays as he thinks they’re going to. He could be buried, but I think that’s defeating the object. They were going to X-ray him again soon to see how he’s holding up. There’s nothing to say he’s not going to, so they’ve got to keep his body where it is at the moment so they can do checks on him every now and again.
How long did you know he was going to be mummified?
Nothing was a surprise. For 18 months we knew he was going to be mummified. When you’ve known for that long, it becomes, not ordinary, but you’re used to it. It was like knowing he was going to die. It doesn’t make it easier, but you’ve gotten used to the fact. It’s not like someone dropping dead all of a sudden. That must be awful. We had time to get used to it. He thought he only had 6 months to live, but he lived for a little less than 18 months. He didn’t take to his bed, his breathing was very bad, but he was really only unable to do anything at all 5 days. He wash’t well-well, but he was able to get about. He had chemotherapy and radiotherapy, then another course of something, but that made him quite poorly, really.
Did Alan always have an interest in mummification?
He was always very interested in anything to do with nature or Egypt, any of those sorts of programs, but he wan’t particularly into Egyptology. I think he just saw [the ad] in the paper and thought, they might as well just have me. I never really asked him, why are you doing it. Because he was, and that was it. It wouldn’t have made any difference if I had said, oh Alan, please don’t.
Have people treated you differently?
Very very few. Some of my friends have said, oh, I couldn’t have done it, not because they thought it was wrong, but they just don’t have the temperament. Alan always said when I’m dead I’m dead. He didn’t believe ‘I go to heaven,’ and I always believed that as well. So we didn’t have any qualms that he wouldn’t go to heaven or whatever. I know some of my friends thought oh,you didn’t have a funeral, and a friend said you’ve got to have a conclusion. But I’m just like that.
Was there any incentive for him to do this? Other than eternal preservation?
Was there any money? no, nothing at all. I do believe, I’m not 100 percent sure, but I think he was told at the very beginning there was no money or monetary things involved at all. I think if there had been, a lot of people might have done it for the money, so he might not have gotten this chance.
If you were asked, would you consider being mummified?
Nobody has asked me that. It wouldn’t make any difference to me if somebody would ask me. I was married to him for 36 years, I don’t really think I need to be lying next to him another thousand years [laughs].