Recent biochemical and morphologic evidence supports the concept that hypertrophic chondrocytes of growth plate cartilage are fully viable cells that play a major functional role in controlling endochondral ossification. However, events associated with chondrocyte death remain unknown. In this study we assess the viability of terminal hypertrophic chondrocytes in situ in an organ culture system viewed simultaneously with rectified Nomarski interference contrast optics and with vital staining under fluorescence optics. Second, we use two methods of optimal chemical fixation at the ultrastructural level to define morphologically distinct stages of the terminal hypertrophic chondrocyte, which we interpret as the stages preceding chondrocyte death. An analysis of serial sections at the light microscope level showed that terminal chondrocytes were found, with different probabilities, in three morphologically distinguishable stages. Seventy-five percent of all profiles were fully hydrated cells with an intact plasma membrane making direct contact with the pericellular matrix, a morphology identical to that of living terminal chondrocytes viewed in Nomarski optics. Approximately 1% of terminal chondrocytes, while still in a fully hydrated state, consistently made a direct asymmetrical contact of the plasma membrane with the last transverse septum. In 24% of the profiles, terminal chondrocytes were found as condensed cells that retained their attachment to the last transverse septum. The stages were not characteristic of chondrocytes positioned more proximally in the growth plate. We hypothesize that a condensed morphology eventually characterizes each hypertrophic chondrocyte, and we relate these observations to current hypotheses concerning the mechanism of death of hypertrophic chondrocytes.