Successful embryonic development in plants, as in animals, requires a strict coordination of cell proliferation, cell differentiation, and cell-death programs. The role of cell death is especially critical for the establishment of polarity at early stages of plant embryogenesis, when the differentiation of the temporary structure, the suspensor, is followed by its programmed elimination. Here, we review the emerging knowledge of this and other functions of programmed cell death during plant embryogenesis, as revealed by developmental analyses of Arabidopsis embryo-specific mutants and gymnosperm (spruce and pine) model embryonic systems. Cell biological studies in these model systems have helped to identify and order the cellular processes occurring during self-destruction of the embryonic cells. While metazoan embryos can recruit both apoptotic and autophagic cell deaths, the ultimate choice depending on the developmental task and conditions, plant embryos use autophagic cell disassembly as a single universal cell-death pathway. Dysregulation of this pathway leads to aberrant or arrested embryo development. We address the role of distinct cellular components in the execution of the autophagic cell death, and outline an overall mechanistic view of how cells are eliminated during plant embryonic pattern formation. Finally, we discuss the possible roles of some of the candidate plant cell-death proteins in the regulation of developmental cell death.