Sandra M. Levy-Achtemeier, Ph.D.

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Playing Dead

Published on Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Playing Dead

Or, Taking a Little Trip: Life’s Choices!

Years ago, when we lived near Baltimore, Maryland, there was a story that appeared in the newspaper one day that I found intriguing ... and obviously, remember to this day. It was the case of a professor, I believe, at the Eastern Shore branch of the University of Maryland who one day just disappeared. Walked away from his job, his family, his debts ... and just disappeared without a trace. I don’t remember if he was ever found, but I do remember being fascinated with the possibility of just disappearing, leaving all cares and responsibilities behind.

And that case came back to mind recently as I began to read Elizabeth Greenwood’s new book, Playing Dead: A Journey Through the World of Death Fraud. It’s a fascinating read tracing the underworld of an international network of folks who aid and abet cases of “pseudocide” (being declared dead with death certificate, coffin and funeral to prove it) or just plain disappearing under an assumed identity – like perhaps that Eastern Shore professor was able to pull off, if he wasn’t tracked down and caught in the end.

In fact, Greenwood makes the case that attempted “pseudocides” and disappearances are much more common than you might imagine. Not only much more common, but much more difficult to actually pull off without getting caught. Because the police and insurance companies are very wise to such attempts at disappearance and have sophisticated ways to track down the hidden or “dead.” The inside cover of Greenwood’s book – pictured in the first photo at left – describes her writing as 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.” Playing Dead winds up as a fascinating investigation into “our all-too-human desire to escape from the lives we lead, and the men and women desperate enough to lose their identities ... to begin again.”

I have a hunch that most of us, at one time or another, share that fantasy of just disappearing, taking off, going away and leaving all our everyday cares and trouble behind. And in a way, of course, I think that’s why I travel – not exactly disappearing – but disappearing for a while, getting out from under the everyday pressures of work and responsibilities. Leaving behind the laptop and only sharing with a few friends where I’m going – off to hike, off to read and think, off to contemplate and meditate on the greater meaning of it all, praying, being still, sleeping in, and so on.

Now I have just returned from such a trip. But this one was a nostalgic, emotionally laden closing of a chapter in my life in a way I’ve never experienced before. Following a trail of memories, reliving the past and, in a way, laying the past to rest.

To make a long story short, as they say, I drove from Richmond to Hawley, Pennsylvania – deep in the Poconos – where Bud had had his cabin for decades. In recent years we traveled there every summer, and in the course of those visits I became close friends with a few of his very old “summer friends” in the process. One of them recently died and I had so hoped to see him one more time before the disease he had fought so valiantly for years won in the end. But another dear friend, Peg, whose own husband had died recently (part of this circle of friends Bud and I shared over the past few years), was there at her summer place, and we had a wonderful visit together this time while I was there.

But more than that visit with dear Peg, my whole trip was nostalgic. Peg characterized me as being sentimental. And so I am. Very. So the first night when I was in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, I had to be in the exact room where we always stayed; sat on the balcony where we always sat (see the second photo below), ate in the same restaurant next door (Ruby Tuesday, of all things!), stayed in the same inn in Hawley, sat on my friend Peg’s deck for a nice glass of wine and a look at the lake, ate dinner and lunch and another dinner where we always did, and on my way home to Richmond, stopped at the same restaurant – Top of the 80's in Hazleton, Pennsylvania, and sat at “our” table for lunch (photos below in that order).

In all of these places I sensed Bud’s presence with me – saw him in my imagination as my dear companion who he was for years. And when I left each place, the line “I shall not come this way again” kept running through my head like a refrain. And tears of sadness and, yes, tears of joy at the wonderful memories, comforted me on my way. It was a kind of death as I said goodbye to an important piece of my past life that meant so much to me.

For some reason, this all brings back to mind Pico Iyer’s book, The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere, that I talked about a few blogs back. I guess the thread that runs through Playing Dead, leaving town and worries by going off on a trip, and Iyer’s book is the idea of stepping out from the pressure of everyday and traveling inward to a new identity or to deep memories that matter. For Iyer, “Going nowhere isn’t about turning your back on the world; it’s about stepping away now and then so that you can see the world more clearly and love it more deeply.” The last photo, though playful, echos this sentiment.

I gave a copy of Iyer’s book to my good friend, John deGruchy – if you follow my blog, you may remember my visiting John and his poet and artist wife, Isobel, in South Africa last March. In a meditation John wrote after reading the book, he says that going nowhere

... is an adventurous journey into stillness even in the midst of busyness or a hectic travel schedule, in order to gain fresh perspective on life and what it means to love. A journey inward that enables us to perceive reality differently. ... Nowhere is everywhere and anywhere we find ourselves. And “adventuring into nowhere” is not turning our backs on the world but learning to see the world more clearly and loving it more deeply. As such, it is not an escape from reality but an adventure in living and loving, an adventure as great if not greater than setting off for distant lands on a jet aircraft.
Finally, circling back to Greenwood’s book, in the very last paragraph of her writing, she talks about rummaging through a drawer, looking for something, and coming across her own death certificate for which she’d arranged when she decided to experiment with “playing dead.” Her last words were “this macabre souvenir, this possibility of an exit, returns me to a day when I could have died but didn’t. I turn back ... to my boring old life, and smile.”

And I too smile. Even though there were a number of tears shed on my nostalgic trip to the Poconos, the whole journey inward was a whole lot better than playing dead. Trust me.  
Sandra M. Levy, Ph.D., M.Div.
Sandra M. Levy, Ph.D., M.Div.>

Sandra M. Levy, Ph.D., M.Div.

I am a clinical psychologist, Episcopal priest and author, and I currently serve as Priest Associate at St. Martin's Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia. Other posts by Sandra M. Levy, Ph.D., M.Div.
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