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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
Pallor and loss of skin elasticity
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.
Changes that occur within the first 12 hours
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Learn about Professor Gunter von Hagen’s Body Worldsexhibition, the anatomical display of real human bodies.
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.
NOTE: In both the verbal and fax homilies that Geronda Ephraim gives to his monastics, he emphasizes “we are the monks of the last days; the holy fathers prophesied about our generation.” He uses this as a kind of encouragement for his monastics not to fall in despair for being weak and not gaining great spiritual heights as “this generation will not accomplish any great feats like the fathers of old.” It is also used to justify the secularization, worldiness, and lack of ascesis in contemporary Greek-American monasticism, to encourage the younger monastics not to have logismoi or be scandalized with the contrast between what is written in the monastic texts and what is actually practised and lived in the monasteries. These prophecies are also used as “leverage” as to why only blind obedience to Geronda Ephraim, the Prayer, and patient endurance are necessary.
The prophecies of Abba Moses the Ethiopian, do not appear in any of the Patristic writings of the time, nor his Synaxarion. Much like the “Constantinople Prophecy” of St. Methodius (believed to be the work of a 7th century Syrian Monophysite), none of the Church Fathers mention or quote these prophecies. They only appear in 20th century books about end-time prophecies.
The 20th century became a hotbed for the dissemination of spurious prophecies attributed to various saints. Many of these spurious prophecies were accepted as legitimate and incorporated into the eschatology of various contemporary Elders, especially on Mount Athos. Moreover, antiquated and heretical “prophetic” and “visionary” texts that were never accepted by the Church—TheApocalypse of Pseudo-Methodius; The Apocalypse of St. Andrew the Fool-for-Christ, etc.—contained so many Scriptural errors, heresies, and mythological traditions that only the passages that fit into the specific eschatological teaching of Constantinople’s liberation were extracted and the remainder of the texts ignored.
Interestingly, many of these prophecies accurately describe certain aspects of the life and atmosphere in Geronda Ephraim’s monasteries.
The Holy Fathers were making predictions about the last generation. They said, “What have we ourselves done?”
One of them, the great Abba Ischyron, replied, “We ourselves have fulfilled the commandments of God.”
The others replied, “And those who come after us, what will they do?”
He said, “They will struggle to achieve half our works.”
They said, “And to those who come after them, what will happen?”
He said, “The men of that generation will not accomplish any works at all and temptation will come upon them, and those who will be approved in that day will be greater than either us or our Fathers.”
An Anonymous Elder
“It is better to dwell together with three God-fearing people rather than dwell together with thousands who don’t have the fear of God. I tell you this because when the end of the world approaches, if, for example, there is a monastery with 100 monks, then it is questionable whether two or three monks from among them will be found who will save their souls. Again, even though the monks are 50, there will not be found even one amongst them who will save his soul.”
“All will throw themselves into food and their heart will love the dining tables, the belly, and money.”
“Nevertheless, do not be amazed so much on account of this, it is more amazing to see whether one soul will escape from the mouth of the enemy.”
“And I will tell you this, my child that the days will come when the Christians will add to and will take away from, and will alter the books of the Holy Evangelists, and of the Holy Apostles, and of the Divine Prophets, and of the Holy Fathers. They’ll tone down the Scriptures and will compose troparia, hymns and writings technologically.”
“Their nous will be spilled out among them, and will become alienated from its Heavenly Prototype. For this reason, the Holy Fathers had previously encouraged the monks of the desert to write down the lives of the Fathers not on parchment, but onto paper, because of the coming generation will change them to suit their own personal tastes. So you see, my child, the evil that comes will be horrible.”
Then the disciple asked: “So, then, Geronda, the traditions and the practices of Christians are going to be changed? Maybe there won’t be enough priests in the Church when these unfortunate times come?”
And the Holy Father continued: “In those times, the love for God in most souls will grow cold and a great sadness will fall upon the world. One nation shall face off against another. Peoples will move away from their own places. Rulers will be confused. The clergy will be thrown into anarchy, and the monks will be more inclined to negligence. The Church leaders will consider anything concerned with salvation—both for their own souls and the souls of their flock—as useless and they will despise any such concern. All will show eagerness and energy for every matter regarding their dining table and their appetites. They’ll be lazy in their prayers and casual in their criticisms. As for the lives and teachings of the Holy Fathers, they will not have any interest to imitate them, nor even to hear them. Rather, they will complain and say, ‘If we had lived in those times then we would have behaved like that.’ And the Bishops shall give way to the powerful of the world, giving answers on different matters only after taking gifts from everywhere and consulting the rational logic of the academics. The poor man’s rights will not be defended; they’ll afflict widows and harass orphans. Debauchery will permeate these people. Most won’t believe in God; they’ll hate each other and devour one another like beasts. They’ll steal from each other; they’ll be drunk and walk about blind.”
The disciple asked again: “What can we do in such a state?”
And Abba Pambo answered: “My child, in those times, whoever will save his soul and prompt others to be saved will be called great in the Kingdom of Heaven.”
Abba John used to say, that he saw in a vision one of the old men in a state of stupefaction, and behold, three monks were standing on the shore of a lake, and a voice came to them from heaven (or from the other shore of the lake), which said, “Take ye wings of fire and come to me”; and two of them took wings of fire and flew over to the other side, even as it was told them. Now the third remained behind, and he wept abundantly, and cried out, and at length wings were given to him also, but they were not of fire like those of his companions, for they were weak and feeble wings, and it was only with the greatest difficulty, and after dropping down into the water, and with most painful exertions that he reached the [opposite] shore. And even so is it with this generation, for although it taketh to itself wings, they are not the powerful wings of fire, but it forceth itself to take weak and feeble wings.
Abba Moses the Ethiopian
Abba Moses, prophesying said, “In the last days of the seventh and a half eon, the monastic state will be completely neglected and in the future, the monks will despise the salvation of their souls. Therefore, the brothers will go about amidst the tumults and troubles: darkened, useless and careless, and they will not cultivate the virtues at all; enslaved in the passions of sin. For where the ancient strugglers burned Satan, that is where Satan is going to burn and set aflame those monks and he will defeat those negligent monks who despise the laws of the monastic life. But where righteousness abounded, there is to abound much more sin and iniquity, because the love of the many will grow cold, and without fear they will be going around the villages with gluttony and wine-drinking, and between the vanity of the world, sinning together in licentiousness and the impurities of the flesh.
“And in those days there will be hate, envy, contentious strivings, and fights in the coenobiums, until murder; likewise, even in the idiorhythmic lavras, from the evils of one towards the other one’s neighbors, on account of the canons and spiritual struggles being neglected.” [NOTE: The fistfight at St. Anthony’s Monastery between two novices from Toronto—the brothers Eleutheris and Demetrios—is still talked about today. As well, the Athonite Fathers who are here in the States still talk about the monk at Filotheou who chased another monk with a knife throughout the monastery ready to murder him].
“They will elect abbots and shepherds: men without virtues, unbelievers, making no progress, anomelies, and uncouth—not discerning the right path from the left, careless and worrying about many things.”
“The abbots will seize their primacy with gifts and will take upon the abbacy without knowing how to catechize and admonish the flock of the brotherhood and without realizing that they should be the type and example in order to benefit their flock. But from such negligence and despisement of the shepherds, they will lead themselves into perdition.”
After these things, the salve of God Moses saw that a cloud and tempest—gloomy, dark, and more fearful temptations—fell upon the monks from the arctic and the monks were persecuted. And because of destructive heresies they will be forced to cast away the monastic schema and get married. Then the few strugglers who were tried as gold and silver in the furnace of many great afflictions, persecutions and grief—those who show themselves tried and victorious over these great afflictions and temptations—will be magnified, glorified, and honored by God more than those who endured the burden of the day and the burning heat and the cold of the night.
After these things, the slave of God Moses saw that the winter of afflictions, temptations and grief of the terrible heresies passed by and there was peace and calm.
Again, however, after the passing of some number of years, the Angelic Order of Monks will become negligent and worse than the first—temptations will rise up again and they will be more violent. He saw how the monks mingled dishonorably with the nuns and that the evil desire was mixed up together with the tyranny, so that even those who didn’t want to were corrupted. But the priests will be polluted with fornications and their prebyteras will commit adultery. Likewise, those men with whom the presbyteras committed adultery will go with other married women.
Then it will be done: The wrath of God consuming every evil generation there with fire, and they will be driven away into eternal fire.
Blessed, then, is whoever does not submit and bow down in the lawless work of debaucheries—which are more violent and heavier sins than murder—but they shall resist and reproach the lawlessness as John the Forerunner and they will be triumphant in reproaching the incest and they will be murdered by the vile, unclean, and licentious people of those times. They will be given comfort and rest in the bosoms of the glorious Patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and they will dwell in the Kingdom of Heaven, adorned and gladdened along with all the Saints; whose share and portion may we also acquire through the Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
As Abba Silvanus was sitting with brethren, one day he was rapt in ecstasy and fell with his face t the ground. After a long time, he got up and wept. The brethren besought him, saying, “What is it, Father?”
But he remained silent and wept. When they insisted on his speaking, he said, “I was taken up to see the Judgement, and I saw there many of our sort (i.e. monastics) coming to punishment and many seculars going into the Kingdom.”
NOTE: The Life of St. Nephon is one of Geronda Ephraim’s favorite books. He gave his spiritual child, Archimandrite Ignatios Apostolopoulos—who now resides at St. Anthony’s Monastery—an obedience to translate it into English. It was published in 1989 under the title, Stories, Sermons, and Prayers of St. Nephon: An Ascetic Bishop. Fr. Demetrios Carellas, another spiritual child of Geronda Ephraim, wrote the introduction. Geronda Ephraim’s teachings are greatly influenced by this book and he paraphrases St. Nephon’s prophecies and visions in many of his homilies. Geronda Ephraim presents this particular prophecy as being fulfilled right now; i.e. this is the last generation of monks and the end of the world is just around the corner.
“The prophets of the Lord God will not disappear till the end of the world, just as the workers of Satan will never be absent. In the last days, however, all that work truly for Christ will hide from the people wisely. And if they don’t perform signs and wonders like today, nevertheless, they will always walk on the narrow path in all humility. In the Kingdom of God, they will be greater than the wonderworkers, because in their time there will not be anyone performing miracles, to incite them to spiritual struggles, since those who will occupy priestly offices throughout the world will be completely unsuitable and will have no trace of virtue. But the leaders of the monks will also be the same. They will have surrendered to gluttony and vainglory. Consequently, they will constitute more of a stumbling block than a model. That’s why virtue will be neglected. Avarice will reign everywhere. But woe to the monk who will prosper with gold, because they will be disgraced in the eyes of the Lord and will not see the face of God.
Monastics and laymen will lend money with interest. They will not prefer that God multiply it for them through alms to the poor. For this reason, also, if they do not withdraw from this greed, they will sink to the abyss. Then, as I said before, the majority will be misled by ignorance into the chaos of the broad and wide road of perdition.”
Elder Ephraim says that when the Greeks take back Constantinople, 33 years of prosperity will pass and then full apostasy will start and the Antichrist will rule.
Elder Ephraim reveals that it is not yet the epoch of the Antichrist’s government and that there are still prophecies that have not happened, such as the 33 year reign of the sleeping marble King, John, after the 3rd world war and the capture of Constantinople.
Elder Ephraim speaks about this event on various cassettes:
“There is a sleeper General named John who the Archangel Michael will then indicate to Christians that he will reign now. He will indicate the place to them with his finger and they will call him to lead and reign over the Greek Orthodox people. And this will happen!
“Years ago there was an [Old Calendarist] Archpriest named Hierotheos on Mount Athos. He came from Asia Minor and the Ecumenical Patriarchate placed him on Mount Athos to perform ordinations, memorial services, liturgies, etc. He was a holy Archpriest in the type of St. Nicholas. I was counted worthy of the Priesthood by this holy Archpriest from Asia Minor. Blessed man of God! “One thing I will tell you. What vigils that we did! This 80 year old man did fifteen hour vigils without sitting at all in the seat. He descended from his throne in the stall again upright. And in the Liturgy which followed three hours after the long Orthros, standing! We placed a chair for him to sit down and he did not want it. He said, “Still our Panagia does not tire me” even when he was trembling from fatigue. This holy Archpriest told us he saw the sleeping General John, who will be resurrected when the great 3rd World War takes place! He saw him! Because the lips of an archpriest don’t lie.
“So, he told us the truth. And we asked him. For at that time my blessed and holy Elder was still alive (the famous Joseph the Hesychast and Cave-Dweller), and all our synodeia and had gotten him in our church and we sat there and asked him questions. And he said it. We heard with our ears. “He said, „There is this sleeping King and he will resurrect again!‟ We said, „When, Elder? When, holy Archpriest of God?‟ He said, „When the third World War takes place!‟ And he also told us that, „The right hand of the King is on the handle of the sword! Which sword is in the scabbard.‟ And he said, „when the sword is out of its sheath, then the third World War will start.‟ And we, out of our curiosity asked him: „Your Reverence, how far is the sword out of the sheath?‟ He replied, „Just a few centimeters remain to come out!‟”
There is a cassette where Elder Ephraim tells listeners that he has seen the marble King John himself [It is unsure if he meant in a vision or with his physical eyes].
2 Sources of Geronda Ephraim’s Teachings on the Marble King:
Unfortunately, the original prophecies that Elder Ephraim is referring to are pseudepigraphs. The first one, attributed to St. Methodius of Patara [4th century] is from the 7th century and written by an anonymous Syrian Monophysite. Even if it was written by St Methodius, the text itself contains so many historical and theological errors that it’s already rendered heretical just by Scriptural and ecclesiastical teachings. There is a prophecy on St. Constantine’s Tomb that has never been recorded or mentioned by any ecclesiastical writer or historian, nor is it in his Synaxarion. The next prophetic text in succession which is attributed to St. Andrew the Fool-for-Christ is rejected by St Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain as follows:
“The Life of this Saint Andrew is preserved in a manuscript of much breadth, a book almost of great composition, in which are contained numerous prophecies concerning the future. I will never issue this here, since it is said it contains some things that are doubly unacceptable, and it is found at Iveron, as well as other places.” (Synaxaristes For the Twelve Months of the Year, vol. 3)
Besides the fact that most of these prophecies strongly contradict the Scriptural and Patristic eschatology accepted by the Orthodox Church, their origins are dubious and obscure, they are not referenced as factual, nor incorporated into the eschatological writings of the Church Fathers (i.e. not found in St. Cyril of Jerusalem, St. John of Damascus, St. Photios the Great, St. Gregory Palamas, St. Ecumenios, St. Andrew of Caesarea, etc.), and they seem to relate more with Hellenic nationalism and xenophobia than orthodox spiritual teachings. It is worthy to note that these prophecies were also widely disseminated Apostolos Makrakis’ disciples. Even into the 1970’s there were monks on Mount Athos who followed Makrakis and wrote about the Constantinople prophecies (Such as Archim. Neilos Sotiropoulos, who wrote The Coming Double-Edged Sword in 1965: http://www.slideshare.net/stratilatis/ep-4676176 )
The sleeping king’s sword has been almost fully out of the sheath for almost 60 years now, and both Elder Ephraim and Elder Paisios of Arizona reference the sword to this day.
Again, as a theologoumena, it’s not dogmatic nor is it a belief that one’s salvation depends upon. However if these prophecies are just mere ‘Greek superstitions of simple-minded people,’ as Fr. Athanasius Mitilinaios states, then the people who believe in these fables could be in a shock when it does not occur.
However, a good disciple says, “Whatever the elder believes, thinks, and decides, I also believe, think, and decide in exactly the same way” [Counsels of the Holy Mountain, Chapters on Obedience]. Thus, if one happens to be a disciple of Elder Ephraim, it’s better for them to believe these prophecies so they can be of one mind with their Elder.
The Apostle John Returns
In one of Elder Ephraim’s cassettes on the Antichrist, he speaks about the return of the two witnesses, Enoch and Elijah, and also mentions the Apostle John will be returning, too [‘according to some Fathers’]. The Patristic consensus is that only Elijah and Enoch will return.
Sermons by Elder Ephraim on Eschatological Subjects (In Greek):
When Will the Antichrist Appear?
The Yearning of Christ and the Last Days
The Second Coming of Christ
In the homily, When Will the Antichrist Appear?, Geronda Ephraim states:
“According to the Revelation of John and the prophecy of the Saints we await the Antichrist! We expect him… The Antichrist will test people on how much they believe in Christ … Some say that the Antichrist was born and is a certain age now. Others say no. The “no” is the most prevalent and most true, because when the future Antichrist comes, humanity must be found in the worst condition! Then he will come as a “Savior” … As the “Messiah” … And will deceive people to follow him …
Has he been born now? The human condition itself does not foresee him … Because the people on Earth now have all the goods. They don’t have a need for the Antichrist’s offering! What could he give us to believe him? We have no need of him… Not all the prophecies of the Saints have occurred yet!
When we take Constantinople, 33 years of prosperity will pass and afterwards the complete apostasy of mankind will begin; the Antichrist will rule! This is not yet the government of the Antichrist, because there are still prophecies that have not occurred, such as the government of 33 year reign of the sleeping King John after the 3rd World War and the capture of Constantinople by the Greeks.”
The Brotherhood in New York Will Be the First to Martyr
Before St. Nektarios Monastery was established in New York, and before many of the monasteries were established, Geronda Ephraim use to give sermons in peoples’ houses. He’d travel from Montreal to Toronto, down through New York. He would stay at a spiritual child’s house, and from there word would get out and people would flock to this house to go to confession and hear Geronda’s teachings. On more than one occasion, he mentioned he wanted to start a monastery in New York State, and he also made prophecies that whichever brotherhood would be there would be the first of his monks to martyr.
In 1998, while the Brotherhood of St. John the Theologian was seeking shelter at St. Anthony’s Monastery (until they found a property to purchase in New York), Geronda Ephraim gave many homilies to the Fathers in the Gerondia. He mentioned how he had a feeling the Antichrist would make his first appearances in New York as it had the highest Jewish population in America and all the Headquarters of the “dark powers” were located there. He also stated that the monks in New York would be the first to martyr out of all his monasteries. He has prophesied this on more than one occasion.
If Geronda Ephraim makes an error, the monastics usually refer to the following teaching of St. Barsanuphius and John’s to justify his error:
Do not think that people, even if they are saints, can grasp the depths of the divinity…Saints, having been made teachers, or making themselves such, or compelling other people to succeed greatly, succeed their own teachers, and, having received support from above, exposited a new teaching, but simultaneously preserved what they took from their former teachers, i.e., the incorrect teaching. Having succeeded and afterwards been made spiritual teachers, they did not pray to God that He might reveal them to be the first of their teachers; whether it was the Holy Spirit who suggested what their teachers taught them but, considering them to wise and intellectual, did not examine their words; and therefore the opinions of their teachers got mixed up with their own teaching, and these saints sometimes said that which they learned from their teachers and sometimes the good which was suggested to them by their intellect; but subsequently these and other words were attributed to them. (Direction on the Spiritual Life 610)