In “Playing Dead,” author Elizabeth Greenwood investigates the strange phenomenon of people who fake their own death, and then tells how they do it.

Share story

‘Playing Dead: A Journey Through the World of Death Fraud’

by Elizabeth Greenwood

Simon & Schuster, 272 pp., $26

Good title, brilliant topic, absorbing book. As the subtitle of “Playing Dead” notes, this is an investigation — part personal story, part reporting — into an amazing phenomenon: people who vanish on purpose, sometimes simply disappearing and sometimes faking their own deaths. A corollary: the thriving, sometimes slightly illegal, largely underground businesses that aid them.

“Pseudocide” happens for many reasons, such as escaping debt, fleeing abusive spouses, or — the most popular — cashing in on big insurance payoffs.

Elizabeth Greenwood began her long, strange trip by fantasizing how to dodge crushing student loans. Why not just disappear, she thought, and start all over again?

She follows up by turning the idea into a journalistic quest. For starters, she consults a pair of professionals. “Privacy expert” Frank Ahearn makes a lot of money helping people stay off the grid or disappear. (This is not necessarily illegal unless a felony is committed.) Steve Rambam investigates fraud for insurance companies, including finding people trying to collect payouts.

Ahearn and Rambam tell terrific stories and offer sound advice. Plan carefully. Do not fake drowning; bodies usually wash ashore, and no corpse often results in no payoff. Avoid Googling yourself; too easy to trace an electronic trail. Use a disguise (even a simple one can be effective). And never get greedy — a huge insurance claim raises red flags.

Consider the consequences. Can you give up everything in your old life? Can you let heartbroken friends and family believe you are gone forever?

Above all, keep your head down — your new life should never attract attention, and anonymity works in your favor. Greenwood notes, “Hubris might propel the plan but it is humility that sustains it.”

The writer cites a number of famous cases. She travels to England to interview John Darwin, who, with his wife’s help, staged his own drowning to escape debt. Not only that; astonishingly, he lived for years next door to his old house. (Darwin eventually turned himself in and has become something of a celebrity.)

The book sometimes feels padded with off-topic musings, including asides about the writer’s personal life. Greenwood rarely reflects on her topic’s deeper implications, preferring to maintain a breezy, chatty style. But she redeems such faults by offering excellent other stuff, notably the story of her visit to the Philippines.

With enough money to spread around, it seems, you can fake your demise — in her case, via a car crash. (The book’s opening foretells this bit of research.) For instance, there is a booming trade in cadavers that more or less resemble “victims” like Greenwood.

Her take-away from the Philippines: a very official-looking death certificate. In the end, though, Greenwood chose to not fake her death; instead she wrote a book.