We've had the first televised real autopsy and the first on-screen assisted suicide. The latest wheeze to challenge the British public’s attitudes to dying comes from Channel 4, which is appealing to the terminally ill to find someone to donate their body to be mummified for a reality television show – then displayed in a museum for two years.
Among all the sobering possibilities of how to spend your last days is now a new one, offered by a film production company on behalf of Channel 4. It is advertising in spirit magazines for volunteers in search of celluloid immortality. The ad reads: “We are currently keen to talk to someone who, faced with the knowledge of their own terminal illness and all that it entails, would nonetheless consider undergoing the process of ancient Egyptian embalming.”
The proposal from production company Fulcrum TV has received development funds from Channel 4, who hope to go ahead with the project.
Documentary-makers are working with a scientist in the North of England who claims to have unlocked the secrets of the mummification process, which was popular during the reign of the ancient Egyptian dynasty of 3300 BC. It rendered the body embalmed or “mummified” in the belief that it was a necessary requirement for the afterlife. The Egyptians were able to preserve bodies for longer than any other civilisation.
Fulcrum’s TV’s executive producer, Richard Belfield, did not return calls asking for comment, but spoke at length to an undercover reporter posing as a possible volunteer.
“We would like to film with you over the next few months to understand who you are and what sort of person you are so the viewers get to know you and have a proper emotional response to you,” he said.
“It may sound rather macabre but we have mummified a large number of pigs to check that the process worked and it does. We have lined up scientists to support the project and found a place approved by the Human Tissue Authority where the mummification would take place.
“Afterwards one thought was – though this is not obligatory – to put the body in an exhibition in a proper museum so people can properly understand the mummification process. That is something we would be flexible about. But we would like to keep the body for two or three years to see that the mummification process worked. Then the normal funeral arrangements could be made.”
Mr Belfield said that no payment would be made, not even to help relatives after the volunteer’s death: “No not as such. Of course we would cover all costs. But the advice from our compliance lawyers is that it would be wrong to offer payment.”
He added: “The Egyptians were extremely clever organic chemists. Some of the materials they used came from as far afield as Burma and the Far East. One resin they used we know only existed in Burma. One thing we want to explore is how they developed their knowledge of chemistry.
“If you would like to think about it over the weekend you can call me at any time. Let me give you my numbers...”
Channel 4 confirmed it had contributed a nominal amount of funds to Fulcrum to help with development. This sum typically pays for a producer to look into the research and assess the programme’s viability.
Yesterday, a Channel 4 spokesman said the channel was supportive of the project: “We’re fascinated by the research that is taking place. If the scientists are able to find a willing donor we’d be interested in following the process. And if you were to question why we were interested we’d say ‘If the scientists have solved one of the ancient world’s most enduring mysteries [the process of mummification] it would give us a unique insight into science and Egyptian history and may well prove to have other significant benefits for medical science’.”
The concept has drawn some criticism, but it is not the first to do so. An ITV documentary, called Malcolm and Barbara: Love’s Farewell, which showed what some classed as the first televised death in Britain. It involved an Alzheimer’s sufferer, Malcolm Pointon, in 2007, and led to huge controversy. The documentary chronicled Malcolm's last moments as he slipped into a coma – he died three days later.
The German anatomist Dr Gunther von Hagens has also drawn criticism for his “plastination” of dead bodies, which he displays in exhibitions around the world.
In 2002 von Hagens performed the first public autopsy in Britain in 170 years, to a sell-out audience of 500 people in a London theatre. Prior to the event, von Hagens received a letter from the British government official responsible for regulating the educational use of cadavers, warning him his performance would be a criminal act.
The show was attended by officers from the Metropolitan Police but they did not intervene and the dissection was performed in full. The autopsy was shown in November 2002 on Channel 4, resulting in over 130 complaints. Others – including some from the medical profession – have supported his work and said projects such as these are vital in demystifying death and the human body.
Mummification: How pharaohs lived on
It took the ancient Egyptians 70 days to mummify a body. They first washed the corpse in a purification ritual before removing the internal organs – lungs, stomach, liver and intestines – through a slit cut into the left of the abdomen and chest.
The heart was left in situ because it was considered to be the centre of thought and emotion. The brain was not believed to be important and was removed by a hooked tool – inserted through the nose to minimise damage to the skull – and discarded.
It was important to dry the body fast. Each organ was packed in natron, a mixture of salt and baking soda, wrapped in linen and placed inside canopic jars guarded by one of four deities. The body was also covered in natron and placed on an inclined embalming table so that any fluids would drain away.
After 40 days, the natron was removed and the shrunken, dried corpse rubbed with unguents to aid preservation. The head and body cavity was stuffed with packing and bandaged with strips of linen glued with resin. Embalmers used 20 layers of bandages and after the final layer would give one last coating of resin.