The first time Elizabeth Greenwood thought about faking her own death was while having dinner with her friend Matt in the Bronx in New York. Sitting in the cheap Vietnamese restaurant, Elizabeth says she was feeling sorry for herself due to a number of missteps which had left her over one hundred thousand dollars in debt, most of it student debt.
Faking my own death. An untimely end would make a far superior story for the bill collectors than simply vanishing one day. Sloughing off the past, shucking the carcass of my impoverished self, to be reborn, unblemished as a sunrise. My “death” would not be a conclusion but a renaissance – a shot at an alternate ending.
Playing Dead: A Journey Through the World of Death Fraud by Elizabeth Greenwood.
Clearly she was romanticising the process in her mind. If only we could all have a do-over, right? And while faking your own death isn’t an illegal act, the series of frauds you have to execute in order to achieve it are. It’s more complicated than simply walking out on your life with no explanation.
You’d never be able to contact your family again.
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One Google search later and she was knee-deep in what she describes as “a diverse and vibrant ecosystem: amateur forums where anonymous avatars traded tips on how to score fake IDS and stash money undetected”. It’s called “pseudo-cide” and it’s more common than most people realise.
Greenwood didn’t end up going through with it but did become fascinated with pseudocide and has since written a book called Playing Dead: A Journey Through the World of Death Fraud, Elizabeth Greenwood.
She went as far as to buy a fake death certificate from the Philippine’s black market, stating that she’d died in a car accident on 2 July, 2013. Just holding it in her hand made her feel better, freer. “Suddenly, the high rents, commuting in New York and the mundane details of life didn’t seem so oppressive any more,” she writes.
Turning her attention to those who had tried, then failed, to fake their own deaths, Greenwood became fascinated by the process. There’s the planning of the accident, usually involving water so the absence of a body can be explained. There’s the setting up of a fake identity using details of those who have died. Then the decision to cut off all ties with family and friends.
Most people who fail to successfully disappear normally get tripped up by small mistakes. Like the Wall Street trader who faked his own death and was found living in a car. And the man with the real estate debt who pretended to drown and ended up being photographed working in real estate in Panama.