Contributor corner: Moheb Costandi

Mo CostandiMoheb Costandi trained as a developmental neurobiologist and now works as a freelance writer. His work has appeared in Nature, New Scientist, Science, and Scientific American, among other publications. He also writes the Neurophilosophy blog, hosted by the Guardian, and his first book, 50 Human Brain Ideas You Really Need to Know, was published in 2013.

Twitter: @mocost

Moheb previously wrote 'The man who grew eyes' for Mosaic.

What is your feature about? 

Death and decomposition. I drove around Texas and the Deep South to spend a few days at a funeral home, where I did some embalming, and to meet anthropologists, entomologists, and microbiologists who are studying how the human body decomposes. The feature focuses on how their work might eventually lead to new ways of estimating time of death more accurately, and on the ecological and thermodynamic aspects of decomposition.

What did you learn that you didn't expect?

That the process of dying often begins long before the moment of death. People who die naturally often begin to withdraw from the outside world one to three months earlier. They begin to spend more and more time sleeping while eating and communicating with others less. They then become increasingly irritable one to two weeks before death. They become disoriented, agitated, and confused, and may talk to themselves.

During this time, their body changes, too. Blood pressure decreases, their skin becomes pale and blue-ish, they sweat more, breathing becomes irregular, and they stop eating and drinking almost entirely. It's as if the body knows what is coming, and is preparing itself for the final stages of life. Then, days or hours before death, they often experience a surge of energy. Breathing becomes even more irregular, and blood pressure decreases further until the pulse is weak and hard to find. They may become restless, or completely inactive. In the minutes before death, they breathe "like a fish out of water" before losing consciousness for the last time.

Read Moheb’s feature on Mosaic, publishing 5 May 2015.