Cajal-Retzius neurons (CRs) are among the first-born neurons in the developing cortex of reptiles, birds and mammals, including humans. The peculiarity of CRs lies in the fact they are initially embedded into the immature neuronal network before being almost completely eliminated by cell death at the end of cortical development. CRs are best known for controlling the migration of glutamatergic neurons and the formation of cortical layers through the secretion of the glycoprotein reelin. However, they have been shown to play numerous additional key roles at many steps of cortical development, spanning from patterning and sizing functional areas to synaptogenesis. The use of genetic lineage tracing has allowed the discovery of their multiple ontogenetic origins, migratory routes, expression of molecular markers and death dynamics. Nowadays, single-cell technologies enable us to appreciate the molecular heterogeneity of CRs with an unprecedented resolution. In this Review, we discuss the morphological, electrophysiological, molecular and genetic criteria allowing the identification of CRs. We further expose the various sources, migration trajectories, developmental functions and death dynamics of CRs. Finally, we demonstrate how the analysis of public transcriptomic datasets allows extraction of the molecular signature of CRs throughout their transient life and consider their heterogeneity within and across species.