The notion of a cell death programme was introduced in view of the reproducibility of its occurrence in time and space (e.g. in the developing embryo) and of its genetic determination. Programmed cell death can be schematically subdivided into three steps: a signalling phase, an execution phase and a dismantling phase. This review focuses on the latter. Apoptosis is the most studied form of dismantling of animal cells. The molecular pathways leading to certain apoptotic lesions appear to be dependent on the proteolytic activity of caspases. Death itself can, however, be caspase-independent. Also, non-apoptotic forms of cell death exist, even in animal cells; their molecular bases are still unknown. The relationship between cell death, apoptosis and caspases is discussed.