Jessica Mitford, 78, author of 'American Way of Death'


Jessica Mitford, 78, whose book "The American Way of Death" won her enormous popularity as an irreverent muckraker and witty polemicist, died of cancer yesterday at her home in Oakland, Calif.

During the more than three decades that she wrote nonfiction, Mitford railed against those who tried to suppress dissent over the Vietnam War; against a prison system she found to be corrupt and brutalizing; and against a medical profession she thought was greedy and given to unnecessary procedures.

Mitford, who was born Sept. 11, 1917, at Batsford Mansion in Gloucestershire, England, moved to the United States in 1939.

"The American Way of Death," published in 1963, made her a formidable literary figure in the United States. At the time of her death, she was preparing a revision to be published next year by Alfred A. Knopf.

The book, a scathing indictment of the funeral industry, said that undertakers had "successfully turned the tables in recent years to perpetrate a huge, macabre and expensive practical joke on the American public."

She felt strongly that someone's mortal remains would be better off studied by medical students than transformed into a profit center for those in the funeral industry. Publication of the book led to an investigation by the Federal Trade Commission.

Pub Date: 7/24/96

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