This study aims at learning about and identifying the causes leading to maternal death. Data were obtained from the Ribeirão Preto Committee for Studies and Prevention of Maternal Death and from obituaries. It is an exploratory study in which 72 maternal deaths occurring in Ribeirão Preto were analyzed from 1991 to 1995. In 1995, the maternal death rate was 60.3 in 100,000 births, with the predominance of avoidable causes, such as hemorrhage (33.3%), other causes (26.4%), hypertension (15.3%), abortion (11.1%), infection (8.3%) and puerperium (5.6%). Maternal death is a public health problem which must be faced by government authorities.