Programmed cell death is a well established key process required for proper development of the nervous system. The regulatory and executor mechanisms controlling survival/death of projection neurons, as well as of other types of differentiated neurons and glial cells, have been studied intensely during neural development. Much less attention has been paid to earlier cell death events affecting neuroepithelial cells and recently born neurons and glial cells. We review here the reports on cell death during vertebrate retina development, our model system for many years, which has provided clear evidence of the importance of early neural cell death. We tentatively categorize the available observations in three death phases, namely morphogenetic cell death, early neural cell death and neurotrophic cell death. The magnitude and the precise regulation of the early phases of cell death are fully comparable to the much better characterized neurotrophic cell death. Therefore, early neural cell death deserves a profound dedicated study; this will help to obtain an integrated understanding of the development of the retina and other parts of the vertebrate nervous system.