Mammalian systems respond to environmental stress by either adapting or undergoing programmed cell death. While there is general agreement that the caspase family of proteases serve as the effectors of the apoptotic death response, the signaling apparatus involved in the decision to activate the caspase system is less clear. In the past few years, the sphingomyelin and c-Jun Kinase (JNK)/Stress-activated Protein Kinase (SAPK) pathways have been linked to the death response in many cellular systems. These signaling systems are found throughout the animal kingdom, and ceramide signaling is conserved through yeast. Since yeast do not undergo apoptosis, the sphingomyelin pathway appears evolutionarily older than the caspase-mediated death programs. While recent reviews by several groups have broadly surveyed ceramide signaling in apoptosis, this paper examines the role of sphingomyelinases and the JNK/SAPK pathway in coordinate signaling of apoptosis.