To estimate the magnitude of nonmelanoma skin cancer mortality and describe its parameters, we reviewed the medical records of all deaths certified as due to this cause among Rhode Island residents from 1979 through 1987. After excluding acquired immunodeficiency syndrome-associated Kaposi's sarcoma, we confirmed that nonmelanoma skin cancer was the cause of death for 51 individuals, a quarter of the number of melanoma deaths reported. The age-adjusted nonmelanoma skin cancer mortality rate was 0.44/10(5) per year. Fifty-nine percent were due to squamous cell carcinoma, and 20% were due to basal cell carcinoma. Most appeared actinically induced. Among deaths from squamous cell carcinoma, the mean age was 73 years. At least 80% of the squamous cell carcinomas metastasized, and 47% arose on the ear. None appeared due to refusal of treatment. Among deaths from basal cell carcinoma, the mean age was 85 years, and refusal of surgical intervention was documented in 40%. Study of nonmelanoma skin cancer mortality provides for estimation of the magnitude of this problem, complements other studies of prognosis, and helps guide prevention, early detection, and treatment.