Cell death is an essential phenomenon in normal development and homeostasis, but also plays a crucial role in various pathologies. Our understanding of the molecular mechanisms involved has increased exponentially, although it is still far from complete. The morphological features of a cell dying either by apoptosis or by necrosis are remarkably conserved for quite different cell types derived from lower or higher organisms. At the molecular level, several gene products play a similar, crucial role in a major cell death pathway in a worm and in man. However, one should not oversimplify. It is now evident that there are multiple pathways leading to cell death, and some cells may have the required components for one pathway, but not for another, or contain endogenous inhibitors which preclude a particular pathway. Furthermore, different pathways can co-exist in the same cell and are switched on by specific stimuli. Apoptotic cell death, reported to be non-inflammatory, and necrotic cell death, which may be inflammatory, are two extremes, while the real situation is usually more complex. We here review the distinguishing features of the various cell death pathways: caspases (cysteine proteases cleaving after particular aspartate residues), mitochondria and/or reactive oxygen species are often, but not always, key components. As these various caspase-dependent and caspase-independent cell death pathways are becoming better characterized, we may learn to differentiate them, fill in the many gaps in our understanding, and perhaps exploit the knowledge acquired for clinical benefit.