The most widely used methods for the estimation of the living/dead fractions of bacterial cells involve specific stains that are able to reveal membrane integrity. Here, we have compared two different probes (propidium iodide and ethidium homodimer-2) that have different molecular weights and steric hindrance effects. We have also combined this method with the staining/destaining procedure that is currently used in the identification of potentially active cells. The procedure for marine sediments described here allows the synoptic (i.e. from the same filter) identification of: (i) the number of living bacteria; (ii) the number of active vs. dormant cells within this living fraction; (iii) the bacterial fraction with an intact nucleoid region without membrane integrity; and (iv) dead cells (devoid of the nucleoid region and without membrane integrity). Our results demonstrate that the concentration of propidium is crucial for the correct estimation of the dead bacterial fraction, ethidium homodimer-2 allows efficient and accurate estimates that are independent of the concentrations used and the sample storage. The active bacterial fraction represented c. 40% of the total bacterial abundance, the inactive/dormant fraction c. 30%, and the dead fraction was, on average, c. 30%. This method allows the processing of a large number of samples with high precision and at relatively low cost, and thus it provides additional synoptic insights into the metabolic state of bacteria in marine sediments.