An investigation of the world of death fraud.
The fantasy of faking one’s death or simply disappearing has sparked writers’ imaginations for centuries, from Shakespeare to Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn to the creators of TV shows such as Mad Men. Surprisingly, however, there hasn’t been much written on the actual nuts and bolts of planning such an event. Given the demands of our present era, Greenwood (Creative Writing/Columbia Univ.) believes the subject is more compelling now than ever. “Today disappearing seems virtually impossible,” she writes. “This, I think, is what accounts for our renewed fascination with it. We are burdened with our search histories and purchase histories and data stats that constitute our profile, to then be lumped and farmed out and sold to the highest bidder. Disappearing means disconnecting—unimaginable yet totally captivating. Precisely because it has become unfeasible, that deep urge to be anonymous, or even to be someone else, exists evermore powerfully within us.” In her research, the author consulted with experts such as Frank Ahearn, bestselling author of How to Disappear, and private investigator Steve Rambam. Greenwood interviewed individuals who have attempted to fake their deaths—e.g., John Darwin, who, after staging his own drowning, successfully disappeared for more than six years before becoming a local celebrity in England. The author also befriended a woman who has become the public face of the “Believers,” a committed group of fans who are certain that Michael Jackson is still alive. Ultimately, Greenwood traveled to the Philippines, a country with notoriously high incidents of death fraud, and endeavored to stage her own “pseudocide.” The author, perhaps inspired by writers such as Mary Roach or Susan Orlean, attempts a lighthearted approach to her material, interweaving personal experiences and insights, but the humor is a mixed bag.
Though earnestly researched, the narrative feels disjointed, and the book is never quite as engrossing as the potential for the intriguing content would suggest.