Playing Dead: A victimless crime, or not?

Playing Dead (with part of my henna tattoo)

John Darwin, also known as the Canoe Man, was a correction facility officer and a teacher. In an afternoon before his work, he went for canoeing like he always does. Yet, later that day, his office reported him being MIA. His wife was panicked and headed to the police station to file a missing person report. The police then despatched a surveying team in hope of locating John’s whereabout. Unfortunately, what they got was his canoe paddle. The team did not give up and returned back to searching again the next day. This time, they found his shipwreck.  After learning the updates, John’s wife was devastated. She made a media statement and saying only wish to locate her husband as soon as possible.

Little did we know, John was literally watching all these happening from one of the accommodations the couple owned.

A little more than a year later, John’s wife receieved the official death certificate from the authorities. The date of death was clearly written as 21 March 2002. It is also the day when John went missing. With this paperwork, John’s wife is eligible to collect the insurance. Shortly after, the couple went to Cyprus and started real estate investment on the island.

This sort of dramatic scenarios would only be scripted and staged in movies, yet they do happen in real life as well. In Elizabeth Greenwood, the author of Playing Dead: A journey through the world of death fraud, the experts Greenwood interviewed pointed out that John’s way of death faking is rather standardized. The experts stated that, alternatively, death faking usually involved accidents and drowning that with no dead body.

Thank you for science! Today, whenever we have skeletonized, fragmented or even burnt human remains, forensic anthropologists will be a great help for identification verification. Dr. Bill Bass, a well-known forensic anthropologist assisted the investigation on death fraud of a financial consultant in 1998. Of course, the consultant ended up being sent to jail.

As Greenwood saying, death faking is somewhat a bridge to link the reality self to the ideal one. Everyone who has taken this action has changed from the role of real-life game player to a bystander. This does not rest on solely faking one’s own death. People would manipulate stories to reach own means. Greenwood states in her book that, according to her research, some individuals happened to make up missing persons, or dead relatives stories based on the 9-11 crisis. These emotional and psychological exploitation is rather unethical. Immanuel Kant, a 19th Century  German philosopher emphasises in his moral philosophy that in Categorical Imperative, the formula of the end in itself is one of the maxims. Meaning, no one should ever use others as a mean for one’s end. However, should it see as a crime other than being unethical?

Take John Darwin as the example. Greenwood mentions that she also got to ask about John’s children. It turns out, John’s wife was his partner in crime all the time. Yet, she broke first and reported herself to the police, John had to with no choice. Furthermore, John’s two sons were rather deceived and confused. One of them, according to John, is still not willing to talk to him again. Grieving is not an easy task. One needs a lot of courage to let go all the pain. As Greenwood writes, the moment one decided to announce its own mortality, one should be ready to renounce everything forever! Unveiling the truth behind would make them suffer more.

Reasons for people to fake their own death vary. With a six-figure student loan and a full load of curiosity, Greenwood paid US$100 for her own death certificate. She included a copy of this at the beginning of her book, and I was stunned and astonished by that. Let alone how she would feel when receiving it in person. She stated that she was somewhat tempted to use this certificate to escape her reality. Instead, she decided put it at the bottom of a drawer and turned back to her old life.

Greenwood successfully unveiled one of the unknown and mysterious sides in our mortal life. Death faking, may not be victimless as it seems. Technically, it has no physical victims, but much of psychological and mental damage. At the end of the day, death faking is not about if it is doable. Rather, it is about if it worths doing.




Greenwood, E. 2016. Playing Dead: A journey through the world of death fraud. New York: Simon & Schuster.