Jessica Mitford, whose book “The American Way of Death” won her enormous popularity as an irreverent muckraker and witty polemicist, died Tuesday at her home in Oakland, Calif. She was 78.
The cause was cancer, said her daughter, Constancia Romilly.
Over 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. She even exposed the odd doings of her sisters.
But it was “The American Way of Death,” published in 1963, that made Mitford, who was born in Britain, a formidable literary figure in the United States, her adopted country. 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 explored the changing lexicon of death, in which undertakers had come to call themselves “funeral directors” and “morticians,” coffins had become “caskets,” and hearses had become “professional cars.” In the new order, she said, flowers were “floral tributes” and corpses were always called “loved ones.” One of the results of all this, she said, was that the cost of dying was going up faster than was the cost of living.
She told her readers unsettling things about their neighborhood undertakers, much to the dismay of the trade, and at the end of the book she included a list of medical schools that might have good use for a dead body. 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 business of marketing and planning funerals.
The New Yorker hailed the book as a “brilliant journalistic case against the whole funeral industry” and it brought an investigation by the Federal Trade Commission. But not everyone was pleased. James B. Utt, then a Republican congressman from California, a state known for its Pharaonic funerals and ornate cemeteries, denounced Mitford as “pro-Communist, anti-American.”
Utt said he suspected that profits from the book “no doubt will find their way into the coffers of the Communist Party, U.S.A.” Actually, Mitford had been a Communist in the 1940s but had quit the party.
Jessica Mitford was born on Sept. 11, 1917, at Batsford Mansion in Gloucestershire, England, one of seven children (six daughters and a son) and the youngest daughter born to Lord Redesdale (David Mitford) and Lady Redesdale, the former Sydney Bowles.
It was by any measure a family given to eccentricity. One of Mitford’s elder sisters, Pamela, aspired, as a child, to be a horse. Another, Diana, wanted to be a Fascist and succeeded in becoming the wife of Sir Oswald Mosley, the ranking Fascist leader of Britain. Another daughter, Unity, went to Germany, became a disciple of Hitler, shot herself and died nine years later.
Mitford’s eldest sister, Nancy, became a novelist and is best remembered for “The Pursuit of Love” and “Love in a Cold Climate.”
Mitford was a union organizer, a bartender at a Miami restaurant, a clerk in a Washington dress shop and a typist and later an investigator at the Office of Price Administration in World War II.
In 1943, she married Robert E. Treuhaft, a Brooklyn lawyer, and the couple moved to Oakland, Calif. When Mitford was 38 years old, she decided that she would become a writer. She had largely failed at her other jobs and, she later wrote, “I figured that the only thing that requires no education and no skills is writing.”
She wrote her first book, “Life-itselfmanship,” in 1956. It was privately published and had little circulation. Her second effort, “Daughters and Rebels,” an autobiography, was published in 1960 and won praise from the critics. Her next book was “The American Way of Death,” which remained on the best-seller list for a year.
Late in life, she was asked what sort of funeral she wanted. An elaborate one, she replied, with “six black horses with plumes and one of those marvelous jobs of embalming that take 20 years off.”