The RRJ recommends you read Moheb Constandi’s essay, “This is what happens after you die,” published on Mosaic on May 5, 2015.
There’s beauty in a rotting corpse. It’s a beauty that’s obscured by putrefying flesh and fetid odours, and by our innate fear of death. The kind of beauty that takes a scientist, and a rather dedicated journalist, to recognize and lay bare. The beauty is found not in the bodies themselves, but rather in the transformation of a lifeless mass into “the cornerstone of a vast and complex ecosystem,” one that “flourishes and evolves as decomposition proceeds.” That beauty is the underlying theme of Moheb Costandi’s 2015 Mosaic feature, “This is what happens after you die.”
Over a year has past since I first read this piece, and despite its endless references to rigor mortis and maggots and putrefying flesh, I can not shake the thought—a discomforting one indeed—that there’s an underlying beauty there. Like most great science journalism, it evokes a sense of order and meaning; it reveals the intricacies of life (in this case, through death) and illuminates them; and it speaks to the dispassionate forces at work in the universe. The story deals more explicitly with thermodynamics, ecology, and forensics, but beauty is its overriding argument. “I wanted to take something that most people think is utterly repulsive, and find beauty in it,” the author told me.
Costandi is a freelance writer trained in developmental neurobiology. He has written for numerous publications, including Nature, New Scientist, Science and Scientific American, and is the author of 50 Human Brain Ideas You Really Need to Know. His Neurophilosophy blog appears in the Guardian. He is an experienced science writer with extensive knowledge in the field. Nevertheless, writing about dead bodies was “a big departure from what I normally write about.”
“For most of us the sight of a rotting corpse is at best unsettling and at worst repulsive and frightening, the stuff of nightmares,” Costandi writes. Reporting the story required that he embrace his scientific training and approach it with the mind of an emotionally detached and curious observer. “I did worry about how I might react to the smell, but it was mid-winter, so the odours I experienced weren’t overpowering,” he said. “I wasn’t really disturbed by it at all, which is, perhaps, a little disturbing itself.” Looking back, Costandi described his dealings with cadavers as “a remarkable experience,” but one that’s difficult to put into words.
If anything is lacking from the story, it’s a strong, compelling narrative. It reads more like an explainer of the processes and stages of decomposition– self-digestion, putrefaction, colonization, and purging. These stages become its narrative arc, the decaying body its principal character. Enthusiasts of old-school literary journalism are left wanting more, as the story is devoid of richly developed scenes, and its people, for the most part, are stiffly one-dimensional. Costandi takes us from a funeral home in north Texas, where mortician Holly Williams is prepping John for his funeral, to a body farm in Huntsville, where a half-dozen cadavers lie “scattered among the pines,” then back to the funeral home for John’s embalming. It’s not through scenes, but rather the scientific precision of his prose, that Costandi’s vision of beauty begins to emerge.
There’s but one thing that bothers me about this piece, beyond the rotting corpses. Its scientific imperative demands stripping the bodies from their identities, creating a tension with normal journalistic imperatives. Bodies, dead ones, are the story, rather than people. While necessary here, the absence of identity is profoundly unsettling. Whose bodies were they? What came of their families? Did their occupiers know, before death, that their future lay in the fields of some remote research facility? These questions problematize the notion that “far from being ‘dead,’ a rotting corpse is teeming with life.”