Apoptosis plays a central role in the development and homeostasis of metazoans. Research in the past two decades has led to the identification of hundreds of genes that govern the initiation, execution, and regulation of apoptosis. An earlier focus on the genetic and cell biological characterization has now been complemented by systematic biochemical and structural investigation, giving rise to an unprecedented level of clarity in many aspects of apoptosis. In this review, we focus on the molecular mechanisms of apoptosis by synthesizing available biochemical and structural information. We discuss the mechanisms of ligand binding to death receptors, actions of the Bcl-2 family of proteins, and caspase activation, inhibition, and removal of inhibition. Although an emphasis is given to the mammalian pathways, a comparative analysis is applied to related mechanistic information in Drosophila and Caenorhabditis elegans.