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Playing Dead:

A Journey Through the World of Death Fraud

Elizabeth Greenwood

New York Times

'There is but one truly serious philosophical problem,' Camus wrote, 'and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.' Camus was silent, as far as I know, on the subject of 'pseudocide,' the term for faking one's own death.

The British politician John Stonehouse did it to escape business failures. Juliet Capulet did it for love. Ken Kesey did it to beat a pot charge.

'How did I end up sweating in the back seat of a Mercedes in the Philippines, driving to obtain evidence of my own death?' Elizabeth Greenwood teases us in the introduction to her book, 'Playing Dead: A Journey Through the World of Death Fraud.' She was 27 at the time, in 2013, and saddled with compounding student debt.

From that coy introduction, Ms. Greenwood leaps into an anecdote-filled history of - and rough primer for - erasing yourself. She shrewdly notes that our fascination with vanishing is only heightened by the 'hypervisibility of our age.' Is it even possible to disappear anymore, she wonders, when every move is monitored, if not by the National Security Agency then by closed-circuit TVs and drones, phones transmitting our coordinates, and obnoxious friends tagging us on Facebook?

To test the waters, she consults with a 'privacy consultant' named Frank Ahearn. 'Frank is in his 50s and resembles a Hells Angel,' she writes. 'The word Freedom is tattooed across his broad shoulders' and he 'uses profanity in a way that borders on Zen poetry.' Mr. Ahearn tells her that he helps people disappear, not fake death, and that the distinction is crucial: It's illegal to file any official paperwork about your fabricated death, but it's perfectly legal (if difficult) to disappear.

One investigator calls staged deaths an 'outlier' in the insurance-fraud game, making up maybe 1 percent of the cases. Ms. Greenwood's research reveals that death fraud is a 'heavily male phenomenon.' Men looking to disappear tend to have money problems; when it's women, they tend to have violent-man problems.

Some of the fundamental tasks on the offing-yourself checklist are more easily accomplished than you might think. For instance: producing a body. A relatively robust number of morgues are in the sales business, especially in places where corpse security is a low priority. Steve Rambam, a fraud investigator, is quoted as saying: 'You can just go into any city morgue in almost any developing country, ask to see the unclaimed bodies, and cry, 'Oh, it's poor Uncle Marco!' They'll be happy to get a body off their hands.'

Even Ms. Greenwood's suspicion that technology makes the job harder isn't that simple. 'The internet is a double-edged sword,' Mr. Ahearn tells her. 'It all comes down to who's better at it: the person looking or the person disappearing?'

The book's centerpiece is a profile of John Darwin, a British man who intentionally disappeared while kayaking in 2002, to escape debt and come into insurance money. He resurfaced in 2007, claiming to have amnesia. 'It's hard to overstate John Darwin's pop-culture cachet in the United Kingdom,' Ms. Greenwood writes. She met Mr. Darwin and interviewed him about his plot, and whether he regrets the emotional toll his scheme took on his grown sons, who believed him dead. (Mr. Darwin's wife was in on the trick.)

Less coherent is a chapter on people who believe that Michael Jackson is still among us. While these believers are certainly entertaining - one of them says, 'This is about Michael trying to stop World War III and the people who continually gain more control over us'; another believes that one of Jackson's lyrics hints that he would reappear in 2012, at the end of the Mayan calendar - they belong in a different book. Those who picture the King of Pop, Elvis, Princess Diana and Andy Kaufman having brunch in a diner somewhere are nuts in a qualitatively different way from people who fake their own deaths. Dedicating a long chapter to them in 'Playing Dead,' rather than a few paragraphs, feels like padding.

The fun in Greenwood's book - much of it admittedly grim fun - is in learning the details: the method Los Angeles uses to dispose of its 1,500 or so unclaimed bodies each year; the fact that imaginary people were created to have 'died' in the Sept. 11 attacks for insurance purposes; the man who is pulled over for speeding just a few days after 'drowning.' (If you're in this game, relocate somewhere with public transportation; motor vehicles seem to be the equivalent of Al Capone's taxes for the fake dead.)

The book's weakness is in its frame. Ms. Greenwood sells us the project as an investigation and survey spurred by her own desire to fake her death. That desire may have been real, but these pages don't convince us of it. Yes, she was in debt, but never does one sense she actually believed that the momentous consequences and dangers of her decision would be anywhere near worth the corresponding debt relief. Even though she goes far into the process (no spoilers about the Philippines here), the book's tone would be better served if she more often admitted, as she does in one quick sentence, that her intentions were not particularly earnest. She comes across as simply a writer interested in a fascinating subject, which is enough.

Near the end of the book, she runs down several of the most fundamental suggestions in just a few paragraphs that can be taped to the computer screen of anyone doing their own research: Don't stage a drowning. Most drowning victims eventually wash up somewhere, so when you don't, eyebrows will be raised. Use your real first name for your new identity. And 'for the love of God,' she counsels, 'ditch the car.'

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