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Playing Dead: A Journey Through the World of Death Fraud by Elizabeth Greenwood

This engrossing inquiry into faked deaths introduces curious characters and a litany of questions about life.

playing dead

Elizabeth Greenwood had recently quit teaching public school in New York City to return to school herself, and her student loan debt had hit six figures. She was feeling desperate, trapped and bored with her day-to-day existence. When a friend made a joke about faking her death to get away from it all, she was intrigued.

The idea became the research project that consumed her time and imagination for years, and resulted in Playing Dead: A Journey Through the World of Death Fraud. Greenwood explores the world of pseudocide from several angles. She speaks with several subjects of infamous botched cases, but fails to identify any successful fraudsters (by definition, they are hard to find). She visits with the investigators who pursue these attempted frauds on behalf of the insurance companies frequently scammed (“His workplace, in a way, is the DMV of death”), as well as with professionals in the field of helping people disappear. She also cozies up to a passionate “Believer” in Michael Jackson’s epic prank: that the singer is not dead at all, but in hiding, sending coded messages to his fans. When Greenwood sits down with family members who have been left behind, she finds the most damage inflicted. Finally, in the Philippines, she sets out to purchase her own death certificate.

Initially Playing Dead asks: Is this deception possible in a modern era of closed-circuit cameras, digital signatures and the inerasable Internet? Is it better to fake death, or simply to disappear? Are those who get caught really “morons and idiots,” as one specialist asserts? By the end of her journey, though, Greenwood asks different questions. Why are pseudocides overwhelmingly male? Is this an act of sacrifice or ego? “Is transformation without annihilation possible?” By the epilogue, she has reconsidered, for herself at least, which is preferable: a difficult life or a false death.

Along the way, she acquires a few tips: keep your first name when you take on a new identity. Stay in disguise. Don’t bother with a surrogate body. Quit driving altogether. Disappear on a hike, not into the ocean. And whatever you do, don’t assume you can return home to family and friends after just a few years dead. The exercise of seeking pseudocide for Greenwood, “acts as a gentle reminder that our realities are far from fixed.”

This energetic exploration of a world many readers may not have ever considered is perhaps slightly macabre, but ultimately very human; it is a questioning of how we seek satisfaction in life, and when we cut and run. Greenwood’s narrative voice is humble and approachable, but as an investigator she is tenacious, going the distance–to death and back–to bring this oddly fascinating story to her readers. Playing Dead will please those attracted to the eccentric, as well as anyone who has ever fantasized about leaving it all behind.


This review originally ran in the July 12, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 cars.

2 Responses

  1. Interesting subject. It would seem that there are a couple of sub-sets — people who plan their “death” and people who suddenly see an opening and grab it. I remember at least one story about somebody who used 9/11 to disappear. And, of course, the ones we know about are only the ones we know about. 🙂

    • I’m pretty sure that case (9/11) was covered briefly. But mostly this book was devoted to the planned type. Good call, though. Especially on that last bit. 🙂 Hard to study the other kind.

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