Apoptosis is characterised by a series of typical morphological features, such as shrinkage of the cell, fragmentation into membrane-bound apoptotic bodies and rapid phagocytosis by neighbouring cells. This paper reviews the current knowledge on the molecular mechanisms of apoptosis as they relate to the morphologic hallmarks and their implications for the detection of apoptosis in cardiac tissue. Activation of cysteine proteases called caspases plays a major role in the execution of apoptosis. These proteases selectively cleave vital cellular substrates, which results in apoptotic morphology and internucleosomal fragmentation of DNA by selectively activated DNases. In response to several pro-apoptotic signals, mitochondria release caspase activating factors, that initiate an escalating caspase cascade and commit the cell to die. Members of the Bcl-2 oncoprotein family control mitochondrial events and are able to prevent, or induce, both apoptotic and non-apoptotic types of cell death. This suggests that different types of cell death share common mechanisms in the early phases, whereas activation of caspases determines the phenotype of cell death. Detection of apoptotic cells in tissue samples currently relies on the TUNEL assay. TUNEL-positive cardiomyocytes show morphological features of apoptosis and the typical ladder pattern in DNA electrophoresis. Thus, provided that the staining protocol is carefully standardised, this quantitative methodology provides reproducible results of the occurrence of cardiomyocyte apoptosis in cardiac samples. Recently, potentially more specific assays based on analysis of DNA fragmentation or demonstration of caspase activation have been developed. Applicability of these assays to demonstrate cardiomyocyte apoptosis should be tested.