Playing Dead: A Journey Through the World of Death Fraud
by Elizabeth Greenwood
Simon and Schuster, 2016; 272 pp
Reviewed by Kayla Rae whitaker


Living a life under the unrelenting burden of debt can cause, among other things, chronic IBS, lack of sleep, and risky thinking. In Playing Dead: A Journey Through the World of Death Fraud, author Elizabeth Greenwood indulges in the last. As she unburdens her anxieties over her enormous student debt loans—a not at all uncommon circumstance among millennials—a friend jokingly suggests she fake her own death, assuming a new, debt-free identity.

She laughs. And then she (kind of) considers it.

So begins Greenwood‘s swiftly readable journey into the wide, sordid world of death fraud, a thriving—if clandestine—industry catering to those wishing to commit “pseudocide” and start anew. The book takes care to encounter death fraud from the perspectives of all players concerned, including those who have attempted the act and failed, investigators enlisted by insurance companies to closer examine more suspicious “deaths” (particularly ones in which new and expensive life policies are at play), and those offering services coordinating fake passings, assisting customers in shedding their identity, piece by piece, until they can make the ultimate break and start over, a different person with a different social security number.

Some findings read as expected; along with insurance fraud, those facing long prison sentences—financiers responsible for the loss of billions, for example—are the most likely to consider pseudocide. But Playing Dead also unveils unexpected treasures: both the best and worst ways to fake one’s death (hiking and drowning, respectively), global hot spots in which death can be faked most easily (facilitators abound in the Philippines, Mexico, and India, for example, where one can purchase an all-inclusive “death kit” including a certificate and recorded footage of one’s “funeral,” complete with wailing mourners), and the surprising ways in which the industry is gendered (While death fraud is cited as a “heavily male phenomenon,” it is suggested that perhaps men are merely more likely to get caught, and that women may be more adept at “making themselves scarce”). The narrative even addresses those aspects of death fraud steeped in urban legend, touching on theories surrounding the passings of Elvis Presley, Andy Kauffman, and most strikingly, Michael Jackson, whose devotees, dubbed “Believers,” hold out faith that the King of Pop is living somewhere under an assumed name, planning a glorious return.

While “Playing Dead” frames its industry’s world in quick-paced and often hilarious turns, it also questions, with grace and levity, the enormous ramifications of such a decision, debating whether or not one can truly commit a clean break from one life and move into another. “Do we have a right to disappear?” Greenwood muses. “Or is shirking our responsibilities—the debts, the marriage, the tedium—the ultimate in human hubris?” This deepening is brought home by interviews with those who have experienced the trauma of a fraudulent death: the son of a disgraced Wall Street financier, made as a teenager to keep his father’s “death” via staged drowning a secret from the rest of his family, and the adult daughter of a drug kingpin who discovered that the father she was told died during her childhood was, in fact, alive and well. Balancing the excitement of changed names and discarded legal woes is the peculiarly nuanced sense of loss endured by those left behind, grieving for one who is not only still alive, but voluntarily, deceptively absent. Once the decision to leave a life is put into motion, however, it seems there is no option to rescind. “When you fake your death, you must go all the way,” Greenwood points out. “To turn around now and repent for the sins of abandonment and unburdening is to betray yourself, the choice you made when you realized you were worth more dead than alive.”