Summary Recent investigations have demonstrated the need for a precise differentiation of various forms of cell death such as apoptosis, oncosis, necrosis and programmed cell death. Apoptosis is marked by cellular shrinking, condensation and margination of the chromatin and ruffling of the plasma membrane with eventually breaking up of the cell in apoptotic bodies. Cell death marked by cellular swelling should be called oncosis, whereas the term necrosis refers to the morphological alterations appearing after cell death. Apoptosis and oncosis are therefore pre-mortal processes, while necrosis is a post-mortal condition. The term programmed cell death refers to the `fixed' pathway followed by dying cells, whether or not with the characteristic morphology of apoptosis. Three mechanisms are actually known to be involved in the apoptotic process: a receptor-ligand mediated mechanism, a mitochondrial pathway and a mechanism in which the endoplasmic reticulum plays a central role. All three mechanisms activate caspases which are responsible for the characteristic morphological changes observed during apoptosis. A review of the different methods used for detecting apoptotic cells demonstrates that most of these techniques are not entirely specific.