Evolutionary, as well as genetic, evidence suggests that vascular development evolved originally as a cell death programme that allowed enhanced movement of water in the extinct protracheophytes, and that secondary wall formation in the water-conducting cells evolved afterwards, providing mechanical support for effective long-distance transport of water. The extant vascular plants possess a common regulatory network to coordinate the different phases of xylem maturation, including secondary wall formation, cell death, and finally autolysis of the cell contents, by the action of recently identified NAC domain transcription factors. Consequently, xylem cell death is an inseparable part of the xylem maturation programme, making it difficult to uncouple cell death mechanistically from secondary wall formation, and thus identify the key factors specifically involved in regulation of cell death. Current knowledge suggests that the necessary components for xylem cell death are produced early during xylem differentiation, and cell death is prevented through the action of inhibitors and storage of hydrolytic enzymes in inactive forms in compartments such as the vacuole. Bursting of the central vacuole triggers autolytic hydrolysis of the cell contents, which ultimately leads to cell death. This cascade of events varies between the different xylem cell types. The water-transporting tracheary elements rely on a rapid cell death programme, with hydrolysis of cell contents taking place for the most part, if not entirely, after vacuolar bursting, while the xylem fibres disintegrate cellular contents at a slower pace, well before cell death. This review includes a detailed description of cell morphology, function of plant growth regulators, such as ethylene and thermospermine, and the action of hydrolytic nucleases and proteases during cell death of the different xylem cell types.