Playing Dead: A Journey Through the World of Death Fraud

Elizabeth Greenwood had a lot of student loan debt and started to wonder, could she just fake her death and escape it all? That musing led her into the world of death fraud, to men who faked their death and got caught, to private investigators trained to spot death fraud, and even to a man impersonating the dead King of Pop. Playing Dead: A Journey Through the World of Death Fraud is a fascinating look at what it takes to fake your own death and why so many people are so bad at.

Here’s the Amazon blurb:

Is it still possible to fake your own death in the twenty-first century? With six figures of student loan debt, Elizabeth Greenwood was tempted to find out. So off she sets on a darkly comic foray into the world of death fraud, where for $30,000 a consultant can make you disappear—but your suspicious insurance company might hire a private detective to dig up your coffin…only to find it filled with rocks.

Greenwood tracks down a British man who staged a kayaking accident and then returned to live in his own house while all his neighbors thought he was dead. She takes a call from Michael Jackson (no, he’s not dead—or so her new acquaintances would have her believe), stalks message boards for people contemplating pseudocide, and gathers intel on black market morgues in the Philippines, where she may or may not obtain some fraudulent goodies of her own. Along the way, she learns that love is a much less common motive than money, and that making your death look like a drowning virtually guarantees that you’ll be caught. (Disappearing while hiking, however, is a way great to go.)

Playing Dead is a charmingly bizarre investigation in the vein of Jon Ronson and Mary Roach into our all-too-human desire to escape from the lives we lead, and the men and women desperate enough to give up their lives—and their families—to start again.

I genuinely enjoyed this book, but I’m also a weird person and fascinated by this kind of stuff. I particularly loved when Greenwood looked at specific cases of death fraud, like Sam Israel and the canoe guy and supposedly Michael Jackson. I wish she had explored the case of Olivia Newton John’s boyfriend who faked his death more, because she mentioned it a few times and it is one of the most notable cases in recent history. The stories about the 9/11 death fraudsters were infuriating but fascinating nonetheless.

I loved the chapter on the people who thought Michael Jackson had faked his death. I wish she had tied to more to what she knew about people faking their death that had been caught, but it was definitely a chapter that must be read. People are crazy, but they’re not insane, ya know? The guy pretending to be the not-dead Michael Jackson might be insane though. But the Believers…they’re just hardcore conspiracy theorists and when they find out that death fraud is a real thing…why not assume the King of Pop took part in it?

I was less enamored with Greenwood’s own foray into death fraud in the Philippines and getting her own fake death certificate, because it felt kitchy and like stunt journalism, but I understand why she thought she should do that. Overall, this is a quick read that will definitely leave you thinking.

 

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