Playing Dead: A Journey through the World of Death Fraud

Elizabeth Greenwood
Star Rating
Reviewer's Rating
May 28, 2017

Deep in debt and seeking a major change in her life, author Elizabeth Greenwood becomes infatuated with the idea of faking her own death. Couldn't she just "die," and walk away from her student loans, her life, and her problems? Instead of actually committing pseudocide, as it's known, she delves into researching the idea instead, and the result is Playing Dead: A Journey through the World of Death Fraud.

First Greenwood interviews several private investigators and privacy experts about whether it's even possible to disappear completely in the information age, when so much about our lives is stored and accessible online. She talks to them about what to do if you just want to disappear rather than fake your death, and how not to get caught doing either. Then she sketches out a few case studies of men who have faked their own deaths, mostly to get out of financial and legal trouble, and she extensively interviews one of them, John Darwin--who has become something of a folk legend in England for his relatively successful fake death. My least favorite section of the book is when she joins up with some Michael Jackson fans who are convinced Jackson's death was a fraud. These fanatical fans strayed too far into tinfoil hat and conspiracy theory territory for me to be able to take them seriously. 

The final section of the book, however, is the most captivating. Having discovered that a death abroad is the easiest to fake, Greenwood travels to the Philippines to find out if she can obtain a death certificate for herself on a very short timeline. The details of how she gets the fraudulent documents--and how far you can go in making your faked death look convincing, up to and including buying a dead body--are truly riveting. 

Although the topic is somewhat grim, Greenwood's touch is light, even comedic. This is an amusing and interesting exploration of a serious topic, but it's far from a how-to guide. (If you are really interested in the practical measures of disappearing, take a look at the book of one of the experts she interviewed: Frank Ahearn's How to Disappear.) Aside from the specifics of how Greenwood got her death certificate, I most enjoyed her discussion throughout the book of who the death fakers tend to be, and the reasons that compel them to embark on such an extreme course of action. Though I idly toyed with the idea of whether I could ever fake my own death when I started listening to the book, by the end I was convinced that I don't have what it takes. It just sounds like a lot of work. While people fake their deaths to get away from their problems, it sounds like no one ever really does, and having to pretend to be dead, too, creates a whole new set of them. 

Reviewed by Heather B.
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