Just got killed on a long extended boat trip over 1K from my nearest rest spot and figured All my super enchanted gear would be lost. Then thought this up.
Lifetime of dropped items is only 5 minutes but only if the block is loaded. As my normal view distance is 25 chunks and it was unlikely I could travel the 400 blocks from the edge of the loaded zone before time ran out, when I was approaching I changed to a view distance of 3 chunks and could get within less than 50 or so blocks before the decay time started and thus was able to retrieve my gear.
I once tried doing this, by setting render distance to "Tiny"/2 chunks, but it didn't work well because the server-side view distance is always 10 chunks in 1.5 (assuming that I was able to find where I died on time anyway, as it was in a cave/mineshaft), meaning that items despawn within 128 blocks (I don't think this holds true for a very low view distance; 2 chunks would mean that only items in the chunk you are in would despawn since the game only ticks entities if a 5x5 chunk area, corresponding to 2 chunk view distance, around them is loaded. The server itself appears to limit the view distance to a minimum of 3 and, at least in 1.6.4, a 7 chunk radius is kept loaded by the random chunk tick logic, so the real minimum despawn radius would be 5 for this version).