During the development of metazoans, programmed cell death (PCD) is essential for tissue patterning, removal of unwanted cells and maintaining homeostasis. In the past 20 years Drosophila melanogaster has been one of the systems of choice for studies involving developmental cell death, providing an ideal genetically tractable model of intermediary complexity between Caenorhabditis elegans and mammals. The lessons learned from studies using Drosophila indicate both the conserved nature of the many cell death pathways as well as novel and unexpected mechanisms. In this article we review the understanding of PCD during Drosophila development, highlighting the key mechanisms that are evolutionarily conserved as well as apparently unusual pathways, which indicate divergence, but provide evidence of complexity acquired during organismic evolution. This article is part of a Special Section entitled: Cell Death Pathways.