Mitochondria are involved in cell death for reasons that go beyond ATP supply. A recent advance has been the discovery that mitochondria contain and release proteins that are involved in the apoptotic cascade, like cytochrome c and apoptosis inducing factor. The involvement of mitochondria in cell death, and its being cause or consequence, remain issues that are extremely complex to address in situ. The response of mitochondria may critically depend on the type of stimulus, on its intensity, and on the specific mitochondrial function that has been primarily perturbed. On the other hand, the outcome also depends on the integration of mitochondrial responses that cannot be dissected easily. Here, we try to identify the mechanistic aspects of mitochondrial involvement in cell death as can be derived from our current understanding of mitochondrial physiology, with special emphasis on the permeability transition and its consequences (like onset of swelling, cytochrome c release and respiratory inhibition); and to critically evaluate methods that are widely used to monitor mitochondrial function in situ.