In vivo, cells undergoing apoptosis are usually recognised and swiftly ingested by macrophages or neighbouring cells acting as semi-professional phagocytes. This review debates evidence that the contents of apoptotic cells represent a danger to the organism, being capable of injuring tissue directly or triggering autoimmune responses, concluding that phagocytic clearance of intact apoptotic cells is a safe disposal route. Indeed, new data suggest that, in certain circumstances, phagocytes ingesting apoptotic cells may actively downregulate inflammatory and immune responses. Consequently, increasing evidence that there may be factors capable of perturbing safe clearance of apoptotic cells in vivo suggests that failure of this process may be a hitherto unrecognised pathogenetic factor in inflammatory and autoimmune diseases. New treatments designed to promote safe phagocytic clearance of dying cells can be anticipated, and it may even prove possible to eliminate unwanted cells by inducing appearance of cell surface 'eat me' signals.