Colored Bones, Varied Meanings (Katy Meyers Emery, 2011)

NOTE: The following article is taken from the Bones Don’t Lie wordpress. The author is an anthropology PhD student who specializes in mortuary archaeology and bioarchaeology at Michigan State University.

When bones are recovered in archaeological contexts, they are not the white shiny ones you see hanging in the back of museums. Nor are they always tinted brown from years in soil. Bones can be a number of colors including black, red, yellow, white or green. Sometimes the coloration can be due to natural processes within the soil, and sometimes they are an indicator of cultural activities. Color can be painted or stained directly onto the bone or can be placed on the skin and become imprinted on the skeleton following putrefaction. It can also be accidental but still due to the nature of the funerary rituals. Whenever a bone appears to have a difference in pigment, or there is variation in color between individuals in a similar area or on a single individual, we need to investigate the reasons behind it.

A new article published in the Journal of Archaeological Science by Argáez et al. (2011) discusses the appearance of black pigmentation on skeletal remains from Mexico. The authors ascribe the coloring to a potential number of substances including manganese oxide, graphite, asphalt or bitumen, all of which create a black color on bone. The authors examined two populations from Mexico that had evidence of black coloration: Tlatelolco, a postclassical site from the 14th to 16th centuries CE and Tlapacoya, a preclassical site from the 10th to 8th centuried BCE. Three samples were taken from the first site and only one from the second. A small portion of the colored bone was removed from the skeleton, ground up, and was submitted to X-ray Fluo- rescence, X-ray Diffraction and Scanning Electron Microscopy. These methods revealed that the black substance on the boens could be attributed to bitumen, a black organic substance that is also found on the insides of shrouds from Albanian archaeological sites. Given the location of the coloring on the joints and knowledge of the region’s history, Argáez et al. (2011) argue that it was likely the coloring was accidental and was imparted during a dismembering process prior to burial. The bitumen may have been part of a hot substance, hot because the bone was thermally altered, that was used to ease in the dismemberment process by being a lubricant for tools.

Colored Bones 1

A number of remains around the world have been found with a reddish pigmentation. The primary cause of red and yellow pigmentation is from ocher, a clay-like soil that when combined with water can make a non-toxic oil like paint. When found at burial sites it is primarily assumed that the deceased individual’s skin was covered in red ochre as part of the funerary rituals. When the flesh decayed, the coloration was transferred to the bones. Wreschner (1980) traced the early evolution of man and the use of red ochre, and found it was a reoccurring symbol in early burials. Red ochre burials were first apparent at Neandertal sites like Quafza and Lagar Velho.With the rise of early modern humans there was an increase in its use. In Mesolithic groups in Europe, over half of the burials that have been recovered have red ochre staining. In the Natufian culture in the Mediterranean, individuals were buried with dentalium head bands, or with red ochre, or with both.

Colored Bones 2

Finding green stains is actual quite common in a number of historical and social contexts. Green stains occur when bones come into contact with copper or bronze that has begun to degrade. A study done by Hopkinson, Yeats and Scott (2008) look at the presence of green staining occurring on jaws in Medieval and Post-Medieval burials in Spain. Major stains were found on 18 of the 208 individuals recovered from a cemetery. The stains were only found at the mouth of the individuals and for some was so intense that the entire jaw was green including the teeth. The reason for this localized staining is due to the practice of placing a coin into the mouth of the deceased. This practices dates back to classical Greek mythology, where the dead were given money in order to pay the ferryman to take them across the river Styx. Although the rise of Christianity and Catholicism sought to break this tradition, it is still documented in art and literature. This staining shows that the act of ‘paying the ferryman’ continued even until the late Medieval period.

Colored Bones 3

Works cited
Argáez, C., Batta, E., Mansilla, J., Pijoan, C., & Bosch, P. (2011). The origin of black pigmentation in a sample of Mexican prehispanic human bones Journal of Archaeological Science, 38 (11), 2979-2988 DOI: 10.1016/j.jas.2011.06.014

Wreschner, E. (1980). Red Ochre and Human Evolution: A Case for Discussion Current Anthropology, 21 (5) DOI: 10.1086/202541

Kimberly A. Hopkinson, Sarah M. Yeats, and G. Richard Scott (2008). For Whom the Coin Tolls: Green Stained Teeth and Jaws In Medieval and Post-Medieval Spanish Burials Dental Anthropology, 21 (1), 12-17



The Processes of Death and Decomposition (h2g2, 2014)

Death is a grim topic for us all. The images many of us associate with it – the Grim Reaper, creaking coffins, skeletal limbs, willow trees and tombstones – are often unnerving, if not terrifying. As children we have been taught to connect grinning skulls and white bones with death and malevolent ghosts – something that remains with us for the rest of our lives.

And yet death is simply an integral part of life and nature. Trees shrivel up and die. Animals are slaughtered to feed those higher up on the food chain. Cells in our body die every day, to be replaced by new ones.

The purpose of this article is to inform, and not to horrify, the general public. If you are faint-hearted and are unable to endure highly graphic descriptions, it is highly advised that you do not proceed.

What is Death?

Death is the irreversible loss of the properties of living matter – that is to say, death is the cessation of life. It is when the body shuts down its machineries of life, never to start up again.

There are basically two phases of death: (1) somatic death, which is the cessation of the vital process, and (2) molecular death, which is the progressive disintegration of the body.


Somatic Death

Our body consists of billions of cells, all of which require two major components to live: oxygen and energy. The oxygen circulated to these cells by our blood is used in complex biochemical processes involving glucose or fatty acids to synthesise adenosine triphosphate (ATP) which, when broken down, releases a tremendous amount of energy.

Because oxygen is crucial to the cell system, oxygen loss is critical and, unless rapidly restored, will ultimately lead to cell death and disintegration.

The first thing to occur when a person dies is that their heart ceases to function1. Because the function of the heart is to maintain blood flow in the circulatory system, when the heart stops beating, circulation of blood ceases as well. Simultaneously, the person ceases to respire, putting a stop to the input of fresh oxygen into the system. Without a supply of oxygen, the cells begin to die one by one.

The first cells to perish are those that are most sensitive to oxygen levels – the ganglionic cells in the central nervous system, responsible for transmission of information in the body. Brain death – the death of parts of the brain-stem, also known as the vital centres, involved in the maintenance of the respiratory and circulatory systems – occurs within minutes of anoxia2. Death of less sensitive cells follow3. Aerobic metabolic processes within these cells cease, although certain anaerobic chemical processes may continue for several hours after death. Ultimately, however, when the body temperature falls and waste products accumulate, these processes too will fail.

Concomitant signs of death

  1. Immediate signs
  2. Pallor and loss of skin elasticity
  3. Changes in the eyes (ocular signs)
  • Segmentation of retinal blood columns– Within one hour of death. In the eyes, the streams in the blood vessels become irregular and lumpy as red blood cells clump together, moving towards the optic disc and dropping over the edge of the cup. This becomes more prominent as the motion of blood decreases, and when blood movement ceases altogether, the columns remain unchanged. This sign may not always be present.
  • Loss of pressure within the eyes (intra-ocular tension)– Within 24 hours of death.
  • Tache noire de la sclérotique– Up to 2 days after death. This sign is only seen when the eyelids remain open after death. Spots – usually triangular, but sometimes round or oval – appear on the cornea, usually developing on the outer side before progressing to the inner side. They are usually initially yellow, but then turn brown and later black.

iii. Primary muscle flaccidity

As the muscles lose shape and contour, the body flattens over areas that are in contact with the surface on which it lies – usually the shoulder blades, buttocks and calves. This is known as ‘contact flattening’. At this point, it is still possible for the muscles to respond to electrical stimuli.

  1. Changes that occur within the first 12 hours
  2. Algor mortis (Cooling of the body)

The body temperature of a normal human being is approximately 37°C. Because the human body constantly loses heat by radiation, convection and vaporisation, heat must constantly be produced by the body through metabolic processes to maintain it at this temperature, so that vital enzymatic functions may continue. Thus when death occurs, heat production will gradually cease4, and the body will cool until it reaches the same temperature as the environment.

Many factors govern the cooling of the dead body. It is a common misconception that the cooling of a body follows Newton’s law of cooling5. Furthermore, it is an equally common mistake to assume that body temperature is normal at the time of death.

The cooling of a body is affected by:

  • The environment– A body will cool faster in a cool, humid environment with moving air than a warm, dry one.
  • Body posture, physique and surface area– The greater the surface area exposed, the more quickly the body will cool. It has been reported that muscular activity seems to help determine the cooling rate as well – a body whose muscles have exhausted their supply of glycogen will produce minimal heat by the splitting of glycogen, and therefore cool more rapidly. Thin bodies and bodies of children and infants will also cool faster than that of an obese adult because of the surface area to body mass ratio. Furthermore, an obese corpse will take longer to cool because of the insulation provided by subcutaneous fat.
  • Clothing– Clothing and covers will generally insulate the body against cooling.
  • Body temperature at death– A person’s body temperature may be normal or sub-normal at the time of death, depending on the cause of death. Damage to the heat- regulating centres of the body caused by pontine haemorrhage6 and similar lesions as well as severe infections may cause the body to be above 40°C at death. Indeed, fulminating infections may even cause the temperature of the body to rise for several hours after death.
  1. Livor mortis/Post-mortem hypostasis (Lividity)

When circulation of blood ceases, any subsequent movement of this liquid will be gravitational – that is to say, the blood will tend to flow downward. Consequently they will accumulate in capillaries and small veins in dependent parts of the body, and this is manifest as a purple or reddish-purple colour7 on the skin. This is known as lividity, and it is usually apparent within half an hour to two hours after death, fully developing within 12 hours8. It may be observed on the back of the torso and limbs, earlobes and tissue under fingernails of a corpse that has been laid on its back, initially appearing as a patchy mottling of the skin which subsequently spreads and produces extensive discolouration. If the corpse is autopsied, engorgement of the posterior portions of the brain, and parts of the lungs, stomach, liver, kidneys and intestines closest to the ground9 will also be observed. Sometimes the distended blood vessels within intense areas of lividity may rupture to produce a scatter of purple-black haemorrhages.

The extent of lividity depends on the volume of blood in circulation and how much blood has coagulated – for within 30-60 minutes after death, blood in most corpses become permanently incoagulable10. However, any pressure exerted upon areas of ‘contact flattening’ – even light pressure – will prevent gravitation of blood to these areas, and thus will manifest as patches of pale, bloodless skin. Once completely developed, movement of the body will no longer displace the blood.

iii. Rigor mortis (Stiffening of the body)

After initial flaccidity, the voluntary and involuntary muscles of the body will become stiff – a phenomenon we know as rigor mortis; dead bodies are usually called ‘stiffs’ because of this phenomenon. In life, the contraction and relaxation of muscles are caused by the sliding of the two muscle proteins actin and myosin within a given muscle unit11 over one another. A muscle contracts when these two components slide into one another; muscle relaxation happens when they slide apart again. All of this is made possible by the splitting of the ATP molecule, which generates a stream of energy. When death occurs, oxygen is no longer being supplied to the cells, and the level of ATP is maintained solely by anaerobic splitting of glycogen. When this energy source becomes depleted, the myosin stays locked onto actin; when the body has completely run out of ATP, rigor mortis sets in.

Rigor mortis has been reported to commence, under average conditions, within three to four hours after death, and will disappear at 36-48 hours after death; however, the exact period and duration is highly variable. The onset of rigor mortis does not follow a constant or symmetrical order; however, it will typically develop in smaller muscles first – in the eyelids, face, lower jaw and neck, before moving on to the trunk and limbs12. There is no measurable shortening of muscles unless the muscles have been subjected to tension prior to onset. When rigor mortis is fully developed, the joints of the body become fixed, and repositioning of the limbs is only possible by brute force – once broken, the rigor will not return, provided it is fully developed. It is traditionally accepted that rigor mortis passes off in the same sequence it developed, to secondary muscle flaccidity.

The period of development is influenced by factors such as:

  • Temperature of the environment– High temperatures both accelerates the onset of rigor mortis and shortens its duration; if the temperature is below 10°C, development of rigor mortis is considered rare.
  • Muscular activity prior to death– It has been observed that rigor mortis develops and passes quickly in an individual who died after prolonged muscular activity.
  • Disease and unnatural death– Septicaemia and wasting diseases hasten the onset of rigor mortis; death by asphyxia tends to delay it. Similarly, death that is preceded by severe haemorrhaging causes rigor mortis to develop late.

A rare form of muscle stiffening, called cadaveric spasms, occurs at the moment of death. It is most commonly observed when the person has died violently – one who has committed suicide with an implement such as a knife or firearm, or been murdered. This may occur in death by drowning and poisoning as well. In many such cases, it involves only a certain group of muscles such as those of the forearm and hand, and usually involves an object tightly clutched in the hand of the victim – the suicide weapon, material from the assailant, or whatever might have been close to the victim at the time of death.

  1. Spontaneous movement

This is probably the most chilling manifestation of somatic death. The feet and legs of a corpse are seen to twitch or move hours after death has occurred. This is no doubt the kind of stuff that fuelled horror stories about the dead arising and wreaking havoc upon the living.

However, movement in the dead is caused by biochemical reactions and not vengeful spirits. Bardonnel et al (1936) reported such movements in a corpse that had been dead for 13 hours. The same phenomenon has been observed in corpses of people who died from cholera and yellow fever. The Frenchmen postulated that these spontaneous movements were caused by accumulation of carbon dioxide in the blood and muscles; however, this phenomenon only occurs in special circumstances such as high temperatures, extreme positions of the body when death occurred and increased tonus13 induced by certain poisons (the poison parathion was shown by Forster in 1964 to augment rigor mortis). On the odd occasion, when these gases reverberate against the vocal cords, noises may even be produced.


Molecular Death


Putrefaction is the final marker for death, the final confirmation that life has departed. It is the gradual disintegration of the body into gases, liquids and salts by both bacterial activity and enzymes from our bodies. This process begins even as the cells in the body begin to die, but is usually not visible for at least several hours after death. The onset of putrefaction is determined by a variety of factors including atmospheric temperature, moisture and humidity (all of which affect microbial growth), age and pre-existing infection.

The mortal fear of hordes of worms descending upon one’s body after burial is vivid and perhaps traumatic – but completely unfounded. In no way do worms enter the death scene at all, unless the corpse is buried directly in the soil, or the coffin falls apart in time. In fact, the final handlers of the body are those that have been with the person all his life – micro-organisms. It is perhaps by an ironic twist of nature that the first things to welcome a person into the world are also the last to see him go.

In life, humans cohabit with micro-organisms – those within the body and without. When blood circulation in the body ceases, the immune system slowly breaks down, as its components stagnate and die off one by one. Without the immune system to keep them in check, bacteria14 within the respiratory and gastrointestinal tract leave their habitats, penetrate the mucosal layers and rapidly invade the tissues. They are joined by other micro-organisms from the environment. There they will release enzymes that will break up the tissue into smaller, simpler components. Ruptured cells in the corpse release their own battery of enzymes, which collaborate with the microbes to slowly disintegrate the dead matter.

Sometimes flies and occasionally beetles will lay eggs on the corpse before interment. These eggs will hatch into maggots and larvae, which will subsequently feed upon the dead flesh. However, unlike the bacteria, these insect young require oxygen, and are buried alive with the corpse.

Tissue changes during putrefaction follows the following sequence:

  1. Changes in tissue colour

The first visible sign of putrefaction is a green or greenish-red discolouration of the skin. As red blood cells burst, they release their haemoglobin15 load, which will diffuse through the walls of the blood vessels and stain the surrounding tissues red or reddish-brown. There they will undergo chemical changes to form various derivatives, including sulph-haemoglobin which discolours the tissue to a greenish-yellow, greenish-blue or greenish-black colour.

The discolouration starts at the skin of the anterior abdominal wall and spreads to the flank, chest, limbs and face in a marble vein-like pattern. By this time, about a week has elapsed since death. The skin will now be glistening and dusky reddish-green to purple-black in colour. Large sheets of epidermis – the top layer of the skin – will come lose with any light contact, revealing a moist, shiny pink base which, if it dries, becomes like yellow parchment.

  1. Production of gases

Because the body will by now be anoxic, all metabolic activity taking place within it will be fermentative and will thus form various gases including methane, carbon dioxide, ammonia and hydrogen, as well as organic compounds such as butyric acid and mercaptans, which in combination gives the corpse a foul stench.

Blisters first form on the skin. These are of varying sizes, from less than 1 cm to about 20 cm, and are filled with dark fluids and putrid gases. These will burst upon the slightest touch, exposing the same moist pink base as described before.

Gas production begins to bloat the body, particularly in regions where the skin is loose16. It is the most rapid in the intestines, where the bulk of bacteria within the body are to be found. The gases formed cause the abdomen to distend and the pressure within to rise, sometimes forcing faeces out of the rectum and stomach contents through the nose and mouth. On the face, gas distension causes the eyelids to become swollen and tightly closed; the lips, swollen and pouting; the cheeks, puffed out, and the distended tongue, protruding between the lips. Bloodstained froth may also appear at the mouth and nostrils. Hair on the head and other parts of the body become loose at the roots, and may be easily pulled out.

By this time, fingernails and toenails readily detach along with large sheets of epidermis, usually forming complete ‘gloves’ and ‘socks’, and the body is incredibly swollen. Eventually, gas pressure within the body reaches its maximum and the abdominal cavity bursts open. It is now weeks after death.

  1. Liquefaction of tissues

Elsewhere in the body, putrefaction continues. It begins with discolouration of the organs, and progresses to the liquefaction of the tissues. Body fats are converted to oleic, palmitic and stearic acids; proteins are ultimately broken down to amino acids, the building blocks of protein molecules. Little by little, the body is taken apart.

As a rule, body parts containing less muscle will liquefy faster than muscular organs. The eyeballs, stomach and intestines are the first to go. Small white granules called ‘miliary plaques’ will sometimes form on the outer surface of the heart. The heart itself becomes flabby and thin-walled. The spleen and lungs become mushy and friable, and gas formation causes the liver and brain to develop honey-comb patterns. The brain subsequently turns to mush. Generally the capsules of the liver, spleen and kidney will endure longer, turning into squashy bags filled with thick, turbid liquid. These will rupture in time as well.

Eventually, after all the soft parts are destroyed, the connective tissue and cartilage will disintegrate. All that will be left is the skeleton.

Saponification (Adipocere formation)

Sometimes putrefaction of a corpse does not lead to skeletonisation. Sometimes, during the breakdown of fat by hydrolysis and hydrogenation, conditions become too acidic for bacterial activity to continue. When this happens, the body fat remains as adipocere, a yellowish-white, greasy, waxy substance which smells of cheese, earth and ammonia. This substance floats on water, dissolves in hot alcohol and ether, and when burned produces a faint yellow flame.

Saponification: Some humans turn in to soap after they die.

Formation of adipocere, a natural form of preservation, is rare and requires a warm, moist environment as well as the participation of putrefactive bacteria including Clostridium welchii. It usually develops in subcutaneous tissues, especially in the cheeks, breasts and buttocks; on extremely rare occasions, the subcutaneous tissues of the entire body may be converted to adipocere. Viscera are very seldom involved. The adipocere will combine with mummified remains of muscles, fibrous tissues and nerves to form a naturally preserved corpse whose features are preserved. This takes upwards of 5 to 6 months17 after death, and the body may endure for years in this condition.


Another modification of putrefaction is mummification, the desiccation of tissues and viscera after death. In conditions of dry heat and air currents – especially when saponification occurs – the body shrivels up into a dark leathery, parchment-like mass of skin and tendons surrounding the bone. The skin around the groin, neck and armpits will sometimes split due to shrinkage. Internal organs do not normally survive, but in special circumstances may be preserved. Anatomical features will be preserved in this condition.

The time required for complete mummification is highly variable, but in countries like Egypt where the climate is favourable, mummification may be advanced or complete within several weeks.

Sokushinbutsu: A Shindon monk who achieved self-mummification.

Aided disintegration: Cremation

Because of limited space in burial grounds, many people today have chosen cremation over interment. The changes that occur to these bodies differ greatly from those that are buried, and these changes occur over a period of several hours instead of months or years.

A body that is cremated – usually at about 926° Celcius (1,700°F) – is burned right down to the bones, first by charring, and then by complete combustion. Fat bodies ignite and burn more readily than muscular ones. As the skeleton emerges, the flames turn all sorts of brilliant colours as various salts and chemicals within the body are volatilised – sparks of blue-green from copper and purple from potassium amidst warm yellow and orange tongues of flame. The exposed bones will then turn black as the organic material is carbonised; later, these bones will fade from black to grey and finally to white. When this happens, the bones are said to be calcined and are very brittle. The skull may crack under the heat, and other bones may warp, twist and form tiny checkerboard or crescent patterns; however, for the most part the skeleton will remain intact.

These skeletal remains are then removed from the ‘retort’ or oven, and are then crushed to small fragments in a container by a heavy magnetic iron, and subsequently ground through a sieve about five millimetres in diameter before being placed in their final resting place.

The Tollund Man
Bog bodies: The Tollund Man.

In the end…

…Even if it means oblivion, friends, I’ll welcome it, because it won’t be nothing, we’ll be alive again in a thousand blades of grass, and a million leaves… out there in the physical world which is our true home and always was.
– From ‘The Amber Spyglass’ by Philip Pullman.

It is a well-known joke that the only certain things in life are death and taxes. Unlike taxes, death really is inevitable – no matter how long-lived we are, death will claim us all one day. Perhaps it is the fear of disappearing forever that drives us to be edgy about death. Thus fear of death has become widespread in our society, has become ingrained in cultural taboos and superstitions. The media – especially the movie industry – on the other hand garners billions each year from books and films that frighten the living daylights out of the horrified but morbidly fascinated audience.

And yet death does not spell complete oblivion, for it completes the circuit for the circle of life. In the same manner that a tree falls to have many others rise in its place, so we take our turn in the self-preserving ecosystem that gave life to us. So much as we dread passing into the valley of the shadow, we may also take comfort in the knowledge that even as we perish and fade, we give the means for others to grow and live in our place.


  • Freedman, AD. 1996. Death and Dying. The 1996 Grolier Multimedia Encyclopaedia.
  • Gordon, I and HA Shapiro. 1975. Forensic medicine: A guide to the principles. Churchill Livingstone, Edinburgh.
  • Knight, B. 1997. Simpson’s forensic medicine (11th ed). Edward Arnold, London.
  • Maples, WR and M Browning. 1994. Dead men do tell tales. Doubleday, New York.
  • Polson, CJ, DJ Gee and B Knight. 1985. The essentials of forensic medicine (4th edition). Pergamon Press.

Further Reading

  • Badonnel, M, E Fortineau and P Neveu. 1936. Ann. Med. Lég. 16:491-6.
  • Forster, B. 1964. J Forens. Med. 11: 148.
  • Spitz and Fisher. 1980. Medicolegal Investigation of Death (2nd ed). Thomas, Springfield, Illinois.

Other Resources on the Internet

Death Erection
Death Erection


1The heart of a person pronounced clinically dead may be started up again by artificial means; however, this does not indicate the person is still alive. Under these circumstances, the beating heart may be removed for organ transplantation.

2The law requires for brain death to be certified by two doctors who have been qualified for more than 5 years, and who have administered two sets of tests, with an interval in between. Even though brain-dead persons may be kept artificially alive on a ventilator, their bodies will nevertheless begin to decompose.

3Among the least sensitive cells are those of the connective tissues, which may survive the anoxia for several hours.

4Heat production does not stop right away at death as certain anaerobic metabolic processes will continue for some time until the cells become too choked up in waste.

5Newton’s law of cooling dictates that the rate of cooling of a body – and we don’t necessarily mean the flesh of mortals – is determined by the difference between the temperature of the object and that of its environment. Thus a hot body would cool more rapidly than a cold one – initially the rate of cooling would be rapid, but then as it lost heat, it would slow down progressively. When plotted on a graph, this relationship is depicted by a downward curve. Understand of course that Newton’s law only applies to small inorganic objects and not to incredibly complex irregular-shaped masses like the human body.

6Haemorrhage occurring at the pons – the slender tissue joining two parts of an organ, or the band of nerve fibres that join the medulla oblongata and cerebellum with upper portions of the brain.

7It has been reported that the colour of this lividity may be influenced by certain chemicals present in the body at the time of death. Cherry-red hypostasis might indicate acute carbon monoxide poisoning; a person who has died by potassium chlorate poisoning might exhibit a chocolate-brown appearance.

8This is how, in forensic investigations, medical examiners can determine if a corpse has been moved after being killed.

9That is to say, the dorsal portion of the lungs, liver and kidneys; posterior wall of the stomach, and the lowermost coils of the intestine.

10This is due to the release of fibrinolysin – which breaks down clots – from capillaries and serous surfaces.

11This is known as a sarcomere.

12Shapiro has suggested that although rigor mortis begins to develop simultaneously in all muscles, smaller masses tend to stiffen faster than larger ones.

13Body or muscular tone.

14Because the body rapidly becomes anoxic after death, the majority of bacteria acting upon the body are anaerobic ones – those that do not require, or cannot withstand, oxygen.

15Haemoglobin is the red-pigmented protein which gives our red blood cells their colour. They are responsible for carrying oxygen to our cells and carbon dioxide from them.

16Areas such as the scrotum, penis, labia majora, breasts, and face.

17Although there have been reports of it being observable in 3-4 weeks, under ideal conditions (Spitz and Fisher, 1980).


Lazarus Syndrome

Lazarus syndrome or autoresuscitation after failed cardiopulmonary resuscitation[1] is the spontaneous return of circulation after failed attempts at resuscitation.[2] Its occurrence has been noted in medical literature at least 38 times since 1982.[3][4] Also called Lazarus phenomenon, it takes its name from Lazarus who, according to the New Testament, was raised from the dead by Jesus.[5]

Occurrences of the syndrome are extremely rare and the causes are not well understood. One theory for the phenomenon is that a chief factor (though not the only one) is the buildup of pressure in the chest as a result of cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR). The relaxation of pressure after resuscitation efforts have ended is thought to allow the heart to expand, triggering the heart’s electrical impulses and restarting the heartbeat.[2] Other possible factors are hyperkalemia or high doses of epinephrine.[5]



  • Daphne Banks overdosed on drugs in Huntingdon, U.K. on 31 December 1996. She was declared dead at Hinchingbrooke Hospital early the next day. She was found snoring at a mortuary 34 hours later.[6]
  • A 27-year-old man in the UK collapsed after overdosing on heroin and cocaine. Paramedics gave him an injection, and he recovered enough to walk to the ambulance. He went into cardiac arrest in transit. After 25 minutes of resuscitation efforts, the patient was verbally declared dead. About a minute after resuscitation ended, a nurse noticed a rhythm on the heart monitor and resuscitation was resumed. The patient recovered fully.[5]
  • A 66-year-old man suffering from a suspected abdominal aneurysm who, during treatment for this condition, suffered cardiac arrest and received chest compressions and defibrillation shocks for 17 minutes. Vital signs did not return; the patient was declared dead and resuscitation efforts ended. Ten minutes later, the surgeon felt a pulse. The aneurysm was successfully treated and the patient fully recovered with no lasting physical or neurological problems.[2]
  • According to a 2002 article in the journal Forensic Science International, a 65-year old prelingually deaf Japanese male was found unconscious in the foster home he lived in. Cardiopulmonary resuscitation was attempted on the scene by home staff, emergency medical personnel and also in the emergency department of the hospital and included appropriate medications and defibrillation. He was declared dead after attempted resuscitation. However, a policeman found the person moving in the mortuary after 20 minutes. The patient survived for 4 more days.[7]
  • Judith Johnson, 61, went into cardiac arrest at Beebe Medical Center in Lewes, Delaware, United States, in May 2007. She was given “multiple medicines and synchronized shocks”, but never regained a pulse. She was declared dead at 8:34 p.m. but was discovered in the morgue to be alive and breathing. She sued the medical center where it happened for damages due to physical and neurological problems stemming from the event.[4]
  • Michael Wilkinson, 23, was found collapsed in Preston, U.K. on 1 February 2009. He was sent to Royal Preston Hospital in Lancashire where medical staff gave him drugs and worked on him for 15 minutes before declaring him dead. Half an hour later, a pulse was found. He survived for two days, and a post-mortem examination found an undiagnosed heart condition.[8]
  • A 45-year-old woman in Colombia was pronounced dead, as there were no vital signs showing she was alive. Later, a funeral worker noticed the woman moving and alerted his co-worker that the woman should go back to the hospital.[9][10]
  • A 65-year-old man in Malaysia came back to life two-and-a-half hours after doctors at Seberang Jaya Hospital, Penang, pronounced him dead. He died three weeks later.[11]
  • Lorna Baillie, 49, collapsed in East Lothian, U.K. at 4:30 p.m. on 10 February 2012. Medics at Edinburgh Royal Infirmary spent three hours trying to revive her before declaring her technically dead at 8:45 p.m. She was in a coma and had been kept artificially alive with adrenaline and would not be pronounced medically dead until she stopped breathing. 45 minutes later, her family found signs of improvement. A pulse was found, and she was revived.[12]
  • Anthony Yahle, 37, in Bellbrook, Ohio, USA, was breathing abnormally at 4 a.m. on 5 Aug 2013, and could not be woken. He was given CPR, and first responders shocked him several times and found a heartbeat. That afternoon, he coded for 45 minutes at Kettering Medical Center and was pronounced dead. When his son arrived at the hospital, he noticed a heartbeat on the monitor that was still attached. Resuscitation efforts resumed, and the patient was revived.[13]
  • Walter Williams, 78, from Lexington, Mississippi, United States, was at home when his hospice nurse called a coroner who arrived and declared him dead at 9 p.m. on 26 February 2014. Once at a funeral home, he was found to be moving, possibly resuscitated by a defibrillator implanted in his chest.[14] The next day he was well enough to be talking with family, but died fifteen days later.[15]



The Lazarus Syndrome raises ethical issues for physicians, who must determine when medical death has occurred, resuscitation efforts should end, and post-mortem procedures such as autopsies and organ harvesting may take place.[2] One doctor wrote, “Perhaps it is a supreme hubris on our part to presume that we can reliably distinguish the reversible from the irreversible, or the salvageable from the nonsalvageable.”[2]

Medical literature has recommended observation of a patient’s vital signs for five to ten minutes after cessation of resuscitation before certifying death.[5]


1. Hornby K, Hornby L, Shemie SD (May 2010). “A systematic review of autoresuscitation after cardiac arrest”. Crit. Care Med. 38 (5): 1246–53.doi:10.1097/CCM.0b013e3181d8caaaPMID 20228683

2. Ben-David M.D., Bruce et al. (2001). “Survival After Failed Intraoperative Resuscitation: A Case of “Lazarus Syndrome””Anesthesia & Analgesia 92 (3): 690–692.doi:10.1213/00000539-200103000-00027PMID 11226103. Retrieved 2014-07-28.

3.Adhiyaman, Vedamurthy; Adhiyaman, Sonja; Sundaram, Radha. “The Lazarus phenomenon”National Center for Biotechnology Information. Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine. Retrieved 4 January 2014.

4. “Woman Declared Dead, Still Breathing in Morgue”. Fox News. 2008-10-07. Retrieved 2014-07-28.

5. Walker, A.; H. McClelland; J. Brenchley (2001). “The Lazarus phenomenon following recreational drug use”Emerg Med J 18 (1): 74–75. doi:10.1136/emj.18.1.74.PMC 1725503PMID 11310473. Retrieved 2014-07-28.

6. Derbyshire, David (16 October 2012). “Lazarus Syndrome: Or how – as one British woman’s just proved – waking from the dead is more common than you think”MailOnline(London). Archived from the original on 2013-05-20.

7. Maeda, H; Fujita, M. Q.; Zhu, B. L.; Yukioka, H; Shindo, M; Quan, L; Ishida, K (2002). “Death following spontaneous recovery from cardiopulmonary arrest in a hospital mortuary: ‘Lazarus phenomenon’ in a case of alleged medical negligence”. Forensic Science International 127 (1–2): 82–7. doi:10.1016/s0379-0738(02)00107-x.PMID 12098530edit

8. “Lazarus syndrome man pronounced dead comes back to life for two days”MailOnline(London). 11 June 2009. Retrieved 1 March 2014.

9. “Embalmer finds ‘dead’ woman really alive”. Bogota: NBC news. 2010-02-17. Retrieved2014-07-28.

10. Salazar, Hernando. “¿Colombiana experimentó Síndrome de Lázaro?”BBC Online (in Spanish). Retrieved 26 December 2010.

11. Vinesh, Derrick (26 April 2011). “Resurrection man dies”The Star Online. Retrieved2014-07-28.

12. McKim, Claire (25 February 2012). “Dead’ grandmother comes back to life after 45 minutes when grieving husband tells heart attack victim ‘I love you”Daily Mail (London).

13. Lupkin, Sydney (22 August 2013). “Ohio Man Declared Dead Comes Back to Life”. Retrieved 4 January 2014.

14. McLaughlin, Eliott (28 February 2014). “Dead Mississippi man begins breathing in embalming room, coroner says”CNN. Retrieved 28 February 2014.

15. Ford, Dana (13 March 2014). “Mississippi man who awoke in body bag dies two weeks later”CNN. Retrieved 13 March 2014.


Unusual Deaths of Byzantine Emperors

Emperor Zeno the Isaurian (474-475 & 476-491)


According to a popular legend recorded by two ancient historians, emperor Zeno died when he was buried alive after loosing his senses, either because of epilepsy or as a result of heavy drinking.  He called for help when awoke but he was already in the sarcophagus and empress Ariadne did not allow to open it.  Zeno, officially, died of dysentery.

Emperor Basiliscus (475-476)

basiliscus (1)

Basiliscus was an usurper who exploited the unpopularity of Zeno to become emperor. Zeno managed to gather an army against him and eventually Basiliscus was forced to abdicate and surrender. He was killed together with his family. Zeno had promised not to shed their blood, so he gave orders to leave them to die -without food and water- in a dry cistern.

Emperor Maurice (582-602)


Maurice lost his throne after a mutiny of the troops in Thrace who rebelled when they received orders to stay during the winter in enemy territory, north of Danube. One of the leaders of the rebellion, Phocas, became emperor. It was the first coup d’ etat after the foundation of Constantinople. Maurice was tortured to death after he was forced to watch the execution of his six sons.

Emperor Phocas (602-610)


Maurice was the first emperor killed by his successor, Phocas. The second was Phocas. After the successful rebellion of Heraclios, Phocas was captured and brought before Heraclios, who asked, “Is this how you have ruled, wretch?” Phocas replied, “And will you rule better?” Enraged, Heraclios personally killed and beheaded Phocas on the spot. Phocas’s body was mutilated, paraded through the capital, and burned.

Leo IV the Khazar(775-780)


Leo IV officially died of fever. The rumour was that he had died of an illness contracted after taking and wearing on his head the jewelled crown from the Church of St Sophia, which had been dedicated there by Maurice or Heraclios. His head developed carbuncles and was seized by a violent fever. It is, however, very possible that his wife, the notorious Irene, deliberately had this strange story circulated, in an attempt to smear her husband’s memory .

Nikephoros I Logothetes(802-811)


Nikephoros I was killed fighting against the Bulgars, in the disastrous battle of Pliska, where a Byzantine army of 80,000 was destroyed. The victorious King Krum had the dead Roman Emperor’s skull made into a silver-lined goblet from which visiting Byzantine ambassadors were thereafter forced to drink a toast.

Leo V the Armenian(813-820)


Leo V was murdered inside the Palace chapel on Christmas day by the supporters of Michael II, who were disguised as monks. Michael II was in jail at the time of the murder and was crowned hastily, while still in prison chains (they could not found the key)

Basil I the Macedonian(867-886)


Basil I, while hunting in Thrace, was thrown from his horse and impaled on the horns of a stag, which carried him for sixteen miles before it was hunted down. One of the attendants finally caught them and drew his hunting-knife, and, cutting the girdle, saved the emperor’s life; but the suspicious despot, fearing an attempt at assassination, ordered his faithful servant to be immediately decapitated. The shock he received from the stag brought on a fever, which terminated his eventful life.

Emperor Alexander III (912-913)


Alexander died of exhaustion -probably a heart attack- after a game of tzykanion which was a popular, upper-class game with horses, very similar to the modern polo. Leo the Wise had prophesied that his brother, Alexander, would reign for 13 months only (as it happened)

Emperor Nikephoros II Phocas (963-969)


Nikephoros II Phocas was murdered by a gang of conspirators who were led by John Tzimiskes. They had entered the palace dressed as women, with the help of the empress Theophano. Tzimiskes and the others sneaked into his bed chamber, alarmed at first to find the bed empty because Nikephoros frequently slept on the floor, but finally they found and killed the emperor.

His head was cut off and paraded on a spike, while his body was thrown out the window. His death shook Christians and caused joy in the Muslim world. An inscription carved on the side of his tomb read: “You conquered all but a woman”.

Emperor John II Komnenos(1118-1143)


John Komnenos died in a hunting accident in the mountains of Cilicia, when he grazed himself with a poisoned arrow which was put out from a wounded boar. There had been the usual speculations that it was not really an accident but there are no motives nor suspects for such an action.

Emperor Andronikos I Komnenos(1183-1185)


Andronikos I Komnenos had established a state of terror. When his people tried to arrest a suspect aristocrat, Isaac Angelos, the people revolted and proclaimed Isaac emperor.

Isaac handed him over to the city mob and for three days he was exposed to their fury and resentment, remaining for that period tied to a post and beaten. His right hand was cut off, his teeth and hair were pulled out, one of his eyes was gouged out, and, among many other sufferings, boiling water was thrown in his face, punishment probably associated with his handsomeness and life of licentiousness. At last, led to the Hippodrome of Constantinople, he was hung up by the feet between two pillars, and two Latin soldiers competed as to whose sword would penetrate his body more deeply, and finally his body, according to the representation of his death, was torn apart.

Emperor Alexios V Doukas Murtzuphlos (1204)


Alexios V Doukas was emperor when Constantinople fell to the Crusaders. He fled to Mosynopolis, the base of the ex-emperor Alexios III. At first he was received well and Alexios III married him with his daughter who already was Alexios V’s lover. However, later, Alexios V was ambushed in the baths and was blinded on the orders of his father-in -law.

After that, he was released and was wandering helpless the streets. There, he was found by Latin soldiers and was brought back to Constantinople. The new rulers of Byzantium sentenced him to death for treason against their ally, Alexios IV.
He was thrown from the top of the column of Theodosius. An unusual death even for Byzantine standards.

Emperor John V Palaiologos (1341-1391)


John V Palaiologos had to swallow many humiliations during his long reign: he was jailed for bad debts by the Venetians, he had to become a Catholic, he kissed Pope’s feet, he was deposed 3 times, his son was kept hostage by the Turks etc. He could not take the last humiliation: In 1390 he tried to repair the Golden Gate of the walls using marble from the the decayed churches of the city. Upon termination of works, the Turk sultan Bayazid I, threatening to murder his son Manuel who was kept as a hostage, demanded to raze the newly erected wall enforcement. John V was forced to obey and destroy the construction. This incident was the last drop. He suffered a severe breakdown. He never recovered and died a couple of months later.


Persistent Frontal Suture: A miracle exclusive to Orthodox Clergymen?

NOTE:  The frontal suture is a dense connective tissue structure that divides the two halves of the frontal bone of the skull in infants and children. It usually disappears by the age of six, with the two halves of the frontal bone being fused together. It is also called the metopic suture, although this term may also refer specifically to a persistent frontal suture. In some individuals the suture can persist (totally or partly) into adulthood, and in these cases it is referred to as a persistent metopic suture. The suture can either bisect the frontal bone and run from nasion to bregma or persist as a partial metopic suture (see image of frontal bone) (where part of the suture survives and is connected to either bregma or nasion) or as an isolated metopic fissure. Persistent frontal sutures are of no clinical significance, although they can be mistaken for cranial fractures. As persistent frontal sutures are visible in radiographs, they can be useful for the forensic identification of human skeletal remains. Persistent frontal sutures should not be confused with supranasal sutures (a small zig-zag shaped suture located at and/or immediately superior to the glabella).


Human Baby Skull, anterior view.
Human Baby Skull, anterior view.
Adult human skull, showing the metopique suture ( in red ), which usually is no longer visible after two years old. This skull an archeological artifact from Aisne (France)
Adult human skull, showing the metopique suture ( in red ), which usually is no longer visible after two years old. This skull an archaeological artifact from Aisne (France)

The “Miracle” Story

A persistent story told in the monasteries concerns a “great miracle that only exists in Orthodoxy:” all priests have a frontal suture on their skull that extends down to the top of their nose and in deacons this frontal suture only extends half way down. This is claimed to be a miracle because the adult human skull is not suppose to have a frontal suture. Fr. Germanos Pontikas, an Athonite monk from Filotheou Monastery who is the second-in-command at St. Nektarios Monastery in NY explains:

Fr. Germanos  of St. Nektarios Monastery, NY.
Fr. Germanos of St. Nektarios Monastery, NY.

“During the ordination of a deacon, this new frontal suture appears and extends halfway down the front of his skull. Later, when he is ordained a priest, it extends all the way to the top of his nasal cavity. The lines [i.e. sutures] now form a perfect cross on the skull of a priest. In disorganized charnal houses, priests can be identified by this frontal suture. Also, when the Church exhumes a body, this is one of the indicators they can use to determine if the person was ordained or not. One time, I had to leave the Holy Mountain and go to the doctor in Thessaloniki. I had mentioned this miracle to him and he replied, ‘Ah, that happens to one in a hundred thousand people all over the world, it’s not a miracle.’  I then asked him, ‘Well, how did those people all end up on Mount Athos and ordained priests?’”

Στο Οστεοφυλάκιον Κυριακού Σκήτης Αγίας Άννας
Hieromonk Panteleimon has a frontal suture, Hieromonk Gabriel does not (St. Anne’s Skete)


Only for the Orthodox?

Another monk who explains this miracle states, “After the Great Schism, this miracle ceased to occur in the Roman Catholic Church which is also another proof that they do not have the Grace of the Holy Spirit, nor the Grace of Ordination. The relics of Western saints who were ordained before the schism have this frontal suture, after the Schism, it is nowhere to be found.” However, many of the post-Schism charnel houses in western Europe contain skulls with a frontal suture–and just like the charnel houses on Mount Athos,  some are priests, some are not.

Painted skulls, found in the charnel house in Hallstatt, Austria. The back skull has a frontal suture.
Painted skulls, found in the charnel house in Hallstatt, Austria. The back skull has a frontal suture.

There is a grey area in the telling of this tale. Not everyone can agree on whether it is all ordained priests, just priest-monks, or only those ordained on Mount Athos. Pictures of charnel houses on Mount Athos do reveal various skulls with a frontal suture, though the skulls are not always marked to determine if it is in fact an ordained monk or not. Furthermore, this miracle is not mentioned by any of the Church Fathers, nor contemporary Elders and Saints. One cannot find it in any of the books written about Mount Athos in the last century. It has been transmitted here from Mount Athos via Geronda Ephraim’s monastics, but is virtually unknown in other parts of the Orthodox world.

Simonopetra Charnel House.
Simonopetra Charnel House.

Persistent Frontal Suture Well-Documented in the Medical World

Figure 1- Brazil Complete metopic suture (arrow). Figure 2 - Brazil Incomplete metopic suture (arrow).

The 2 skulls above are from Brazil. The skull on the left has a complete metopic suture (Orthodox priest?) and the skull on the right has an incomplete metopic suture (Orthodox deacon?)

This phenomenon, however, is documented in the medical world and is known as persistent frontal suture. Furthermore, in medical research journals, there are numerous photos of skulls from Africa, Brazil, India, Mongolia, Thailand, etc., with complete and incomplete persistent frontal suture. Furthermore, many of these skulls have the yellowish coloring that is also suppose to be a miracle only found in orthodoxy indicating holiness or sanctity.

Non-orthodox layman adult skull with Persistent Frontal Suture, forming a perfect  Cross.
Non-orthodox layman adult skull with Persistent Frontal Suture, forming a perfect Cross.

The problem with the “exclusive Orthodox Miracle”

Persistent Frontal Suture is found all over the world. Many times the skulls belonged to people who were non-Orthodox and even non-Christian. Furthermore, many female adult skulls also have PFS. As those who are non-Orthodox are obviously not ordained priests in the Orthodox Church and the Church forbids women to be ordained priests, Persistent Frontal Suture cannot be claimed as a miracle exclusive to clergymen ordained in the Eastern Orthodox Church. Showing pilgrims pictures of Athonite charnel houses containing skulls with PFS does not validate it as an exclusive orthodox miracle, nor does it prove Orthodoxy is the only truth. Telling pilgrims that scientists are baffled and cannot explain this “miracle”—when, in fact, prestigious medical journals around the world are filled with articles about Persistent Frontal Suture in adult skulls—is inaccurate and misleading.

cup 1a cup 1

A rare metopic Tibetan skull bowel. Kapala This rare example has the metopic suture. The lining is silver with a gold wash, and a beautiful matrix turquoise cabochon is mounted inside. Tibet, 19th century.

A) Superior view of the skull showing the metopism, B) Anteroposterior radiograph of the skull showing the complete metopic suture. (CS – coronal suture, SS – sagittal suture, LS – lambdoid suture, MS – metopic suture).
A) Superior view of the skull
showing the metopism,
B) Anteroposterior radiograph of the
skull showing the complete metopic
suture. (CS – coronal suture, SS –
sagittal suture, LS – lambdoid suture,
MS – metopic suture).

Metopic ''Deacon'' (India) Metopic ''Priest'' (India)

Adult skulls from India. The one on the left would be assumed an “orthodox deacon” and the one on the right would be assumed a “orthodox priest.”


• A note on the morphology of the metopic suture in the human skull
• A rare case of persistent metopic suture in an elderly individual: Incidental autopsy finding with clinical implications (Karnataka, India);year=2014;volume=2;issue=1;spage=61;epage=63;aulast=Vikram
• Autopsy Study of Metopic Suture Incidence in Human Skulls in Western Rajasthan
• Imaging in Skull Fractures
• Incidence of metopic suture in adult South Indian skulls
• Incidence of metopic suture in skulls of Northeastern Thai adults
• Median Frontal Sutures – Incidence, Morphology and Their Surgical, Radiological Importance
• Metopic suture
• Metopism in Adult Skulls from Southern Brazil
• Morphological study of Metopic suture in adult South Indian skulls
• Occurrence of Metopism in Dry Crania of Adult Brazilians
• Persistent Metopic Suture in Various Forms in South Indian Adult Skulls – A Study
• Single Suture Craniosynostoses
• Skulls
• Tale of the Taung Child Collapses

Fig 1

Persistent Frontal Suture in Northeastern Thai Adult
Persistent Frontal Suture in Northeastern Thai Adult
Arrow indicating a complete metopic suture. The metopic suture extends from the nasion (A) to the bregma (B).
Arrow indicating a complete metopic suture. The metopic suture extends from the nasion (A) to the bregma (B).

Persitent Full Metopic Suture

The Death of Infants (Metropolitan Hierotheos Vlachos)

NOTE: At St. Nektarios Monastery in Roscoe, NY, Fr. Germanos tells a story to various groups of pilgrims about a young couple from Montreal who lost their baby. Though it brought them much grief, the death brought some of the relatives who lived lives very far from the Church, closer to God and back to the Church. One of the couple’s father was very impious, a blasphemer, against the Church, etc. The funeral moved him in such a way that it brought him to compunction and repentance and he went to confession. From that point, he started changing his life, going to church regularly, etc. Now, apparently, the young couple praises God for the death of their baby because of all the good that has come out of it.

According to the UNICEF, “The global under-five mortality rate has declined by nearly half (49 per cent) since 1990, dropping from 90 to 46 deaths per 1,000 live births in 2013.” Meanwhile, the US leads Western nations in child homicide rates, while millions of children around the world are threatened with physical, sexual and emotional abuse, including murder, rape and bullying, a new UNICEF report revealed: 



There is a small treatise by St. Gregory of Nyssa entitled Concerning infants snatched away prematurely, that is to say, taken from life before they had tasted the life for which they were born. The treatise was written for Governor Hierios of Cappadocia, who had asked St. Gregory of Nyssa what we ought to know about those who depart from life very early, whose death is joined with their birth.

14,000 Infants slain by Herod at Bethlehem.
14,000 Infants slain by Herod at Bethlehem.

Without presenting his thoughts rhetorically in antithetical words, he proceeds to deal with the topic by a rational sequence…

The fourth point which St. Gregory analyses is why God permits a baby to die at such an age. Having analysed previously that as far as participation in the divine Light is concerned, the number of years which we have lived does not play a great role, he now goes on to explain why God permits sudden departure from this life.

Holy Maccabee Children & Sts. Eleazar & Solomone
Holy Maccabee Children & Sts. Eleazar & Solomone

In answer to this question he says that no one can put the blame on God in cases where women murder their children because of illicit pregnancy. But as to the cases in which infants leave this world through some infirmity even though their parents have cared for them and prayed for them, we must look at them within God’s Providence. For perfect providence is that which does not simply heal the sufferings which have taken place, but it protects the person from even tasting things which would happen in the future. Whoever knows the future, as is the case with God, will naturally prevent the baby from growing up, so that he will not be brought to a bad end. Thus in the latter cases it is precisely because He sees the infant’s bad future that God does not permit him to live. God does this out of love and charity, without essentially depriving him of any of the future blessings, as we have seen.

St. Gabriel the Child-Martyr of Poland
St. Gabriel the Child-Martyr of Poland

In order to make this economy of God understandable, St. Gregory offers a beautiful and descriptive example. Let us suppose that there is a rich table with many appetizing foods. Let us go on to suppose that there is a supervisor who, on the one hand knows the qualities of each food – which one is harmful and unsuitable and which is suitable for eating – and on the other hand is very familiar with the temperament of each dinner guest. Let us still further suppose that this supervisor has absolute authority to permit one person to eat the food and prevent another, so that each one will eat what is suitable for his temperament and the sick person will therefore not be tormented nor the healthy one fall into loathing because of excess of food. If the supervisor should find out that one person had become drunk from much food and drink, or another was beginning to be drunk, he would get him out of that particular place. There is the case of a man who was put out of that place and turned against the supervisor, to accuse him of depriving him of the good things through envy. But if he were to look carefully at those who remained and suffered from sickness and headaches because of drunkenness, and expressed themselves with ugly words, then he would thank the supervisor for saving him from the pain of overeating.

Royal Child Martyr Tsarevich Alexis
Royal Child Martyr Tsarevich Alexis

This example matches human life. Human life is a table at which there are abundant foods. Life, however, is not sweet as honey, but also has various disagreeable foods such as salt and vinegar, which make human life difficult. Some foods arouse boasting, others make those who share them go into a frenzy, losing their heads, and in others they cause sickness. The supervisor of the table, who is God, takes away from that table promptly him who behaved properly in order not to be like those who suffer from excess of pleasure because of their gluttony.

St Sophia and her daughters, Faith, Hope and Love

In this way divine providence cures illnesses before they are yet manifest. Since God, with His prognostic power, knows that the newborn child will make bad use of the world when he grows up, He removes him from the banquet of life. The newborn child is detached from life so that he will not use his gluttony at the table of this life. On this point too we see the great love and philanthropy of God.

Rachel weeping for her children, and would not be comforted, because they are not.
Rachel weeping for
her children, and would not be
comforted, because they are not.

The fifth point, which results from the foregoing, is the question of why God makes a distinction in His choice, why he takes one away providentially, while he lets the other become so bad that we wish that he had never been born. Why is the baby taken from this life providentially while his father is left, who drinks at the banquet until his old age, strewing his evil dregs on himself as well as on his fellow-drinkers?

In answer to this question he says that what it means is a word “to the most grateful”, to those who are thankful to God and, naturally, are well disposed. Besides, these are mysteries which man’s reason cannot grasp, precisely because God’s “reason” is different from man’s reason.

Holy New Martyrs of China
Holy New Martyrs of China

St. Gregory maintains that what God arranges is not fortuitous and without reason. God is word, wisdom, virtue and truth, and He will not accept what is unrelated to virtue and truth. Thus sometimes, for reasons which we have mentioned, babies are snatched from life early, and sometimes God permits something different, because He has a better end in view.

It is also permitted and granted by God that evil people should remain in life so that some benefits may be derived. Referring to the Israelites, he says that God permitted Egypt to oppress them in order to teach the Israelite people, just as He also brought the Israelites out of Egypt so that they would not become like the Egyptians and acquire their customs. With poundings on the anvil even the hardest iron, which does not soften in fire, can take the form of a useful tool.


Another argument is dealt with as well. Some people maintain that not all people in this life have banished the fruits of wickedness, nor have the virtuous benefited from the sweating labours of virtue. To this St. Gregory of Nyssa replies that the virtuous will also rejoice in the next life, comparing their own blessings with the loss suffered by those condemned. This is said from the point of view that the comparison of opposites becomes “an addition of pleasure and an increase for the virtuous”. To be sure, it does not mean that they rejoice at the condemnation of other men, but they thank God for their salvation, because they are experiencing the happiness of virtue in contrast to the unhappiness of sin and the passions.

Therefore infants are snatched away from life prema­turely in order that they do not fall into more dreadful evils. If some live and become evil, this has other reasons which are in the Providence and wisdom of God. Nevertheless some benefits will come, since God does not do anything without a reason and a purpose.

The Children

The fact is that the infants who depart from life prematurely neither find themselves in a painful state nor become equal to those who have struggled to be purified by every virtue. They are in God’s Providence. Anyway, the journey to God and participation in the uncreated Light is a natural state of the soul, and infants cannot be deprived of this, because by the power of divine grace they can attain deification.