Dead Vibes Only

Kafka’s The Trial meets The Truman Show. 

The United States Social Security Administration (SSA) possesses a list of all living Americans in order to pay them their entitled benefits when they reach the age of sixty-five or if they have a qualified disability. Many recipients depend on these payments to pay their medical bills, rent and other necessities. They also possess another list called the Death Master File (DMF) to account for the deceased. The file’s publication is a measure to prevent insurance fraud and identity theft. However, every year between 7,000 and 14,000 demonstrably alive people are erroneously declared dead and placed on the DMF. It can happen to anyone. 

The culprit is typically a clerical error made by a SSA employee, a funeral director, a medical examiner, physician or family member. There are safeguards, such as the Electronic Death Records (EDR) which are used at the state level. This system compares the deceased person’s information against the SSA’s numerical identification system. However, it is not a perfect system and not all states use EDR. The DMF is continually updated and distributed to federal and state agencies and the Freedom of Information Act made the DMF available to the public. It is used by credit agencies, identity authentication companies, banks and other institutions. The certification process to access this private information is negligible. To make matters worse, only federal data can be sent to these agencies even though the state-level data is more accurate.

No one takes responsibility for this error save for the victim and the victim’s family. Their remedy is arduous and lengthy. To be legally resurrected, they endure a gauntlet of bureaucratic red tape and cold shoulders, economic instability or outright collapse, exacerbated existing and potentially new health issues, social invisibility, emotional drainage and psychological sundering. Even if the victim is successfully resurrected on the federal level, the damage is typically already done. Their personal information is still available to private companies who may possess an outdated version of the DMF. This makes the recently resurrected victim vulnerable to a Sisyphean struggle to prove that they are not dead.