Jessica Mitford, whose book "The American Way of Death" won her enormous popularity as an irreverent muckraker and witty polemicist, died yesterday 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, Miss 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 the British-born Miss Mitford a formidable literary figure in her adopted country. Near her death she was preparing a revision to be published next year by Alfred A. Knopf.
The thesis of the book, a scathing indictment of the American funeral industry, was 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 rising 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 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 the work led to 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 Miss Mitford as "pro-Communist, anti-American." Mr. 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." Miss Mitford had been a Communist in the 194O's, an experience chronicled in her memoirs, but had quit the party,
Jessica Mitford was born on Sept. 11, 1917, at Batsford Mansion in Gloucestershire, England, one of seven children 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 Miss Mitford's five 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 leader of Britain's Fascists. Another daughter, Unity, went to Germany, became a disciple of Hitler, shot herself and died nine years later in a nursing home.
Miss Mitford's eldest sister, Nancy , became a novelist, and is best remembered for "The Pursuit of Love" and "Love in a Cold Climate."
Miss Mitford described her childhood hood as largely unhappy. She particularly resented that she and her sisters were prevented from going to school because Lady Redesdale did not believe that girls needed it and tutored them at home.
Early in life, Miss Mitford shared a sitting room with her sister Unity, who adorned it with swastikas. According to her memoirs, Miss Mitford responded by using a diamond ring to carve small hammers and sickles into the windowpanes.
When she was 19, she ran away from home with a second cousin, Esmond Romilly, a nephew of Winston Churchill. Because she eloped, she was cut out of her father's will. In 1939, Miss Mitford quit her job as a market researcher in the London office of J. Walter Thompson and moved to the United States with her husband. He joined the Canadian Air Force after the war broke out and was killed in action in 1941.
Miss 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 lawyer from Brooklyn, and the couple moved to Oakland, Calif. When Miss Mitford was 38, she decided that she would become a writer. She had largely failed at her Other jobs, she wrote, and "I figured that the only thing that requires no education and no skills is writing."
She produced her first book, "Lifeitselfmanship," 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." She added that she wanted "streets to be blocked off, dignitaries to declaim sobbingly over the flower-smothered bier, proclamations to be issued -- that sort of thing.
Her other books attracted much attention, although none as much as "The American Way of Death." She also wrote "The Trial of Dr. Spock, William Sloan Coffin Jr., Michael Ferber, Mitchell Goodman and Marcus Raskin" (1969), five who were accused of aiding and abetting those who sought to violate the Selective Service Act. Among her other books were "Kind and Usual Punishment: The Prison Business" (1973), a study of American prisons, which she found wanting in almost everything except brutality;" "A Fine Old Conflict" (1977), a memoir of her Communist days; "Poison Penmanship: The Gentle Art of Muckraking" (1979), and "The American Way of Birth" (1992), in which she accused doctors of doing too many Caesarean sections and of not paying enough attention to the possibilities offered by midwifery.
She also wrote articles for Life, Esquire, The Nation and The San Francisco Chronicle.
In addition to her daughter, of Manhattan, she is survived by her husband; a son, Benjamin Treuhaft of Berkeley, Calif.; two sisters, Deborah Devonshire of Chatsworth, England, and Diana Mosley of Paris, and three grandchildren.