02 May 2023

Review: Personal Effects by Robert A. Jensen

Personal Effects - What Recovering the Dead Teaches Me About Caring for the Living by Robert A. Jensen audiobook cover

I'm a sucker for titles like this, and I was drawn to read Personal Effects - What Recovering the Dead Teaches Me About Caring for the Living by Robert A. Jensen in order to find out what Jensen has learned in his time recovering the dead.

Jensen has had a stand out career, beginning with a Bachelor of Science in Criminology - Law Enforcement and time spent at the Fresno County Sheriff’s Office as Deputy Sheriff. He then served 10 years as a US Army Officer where - among other military postings - he worked as the Commander of Mortuary Affairs and responded to the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.

In 1998, Jensen joined Kenyon International Emergency Services, the leading disaster management company in the world. Jensen later became the CEO of Kenyon, eventual owner and Chairman; later selling the business and stepping down in 2021. He also served in the California Army National Guard. Does this guy ever stop? (Short answer: no).

Dealing with just one mass fatality in a lifetime would be more than most of us could process, but Jensen was involved in many major events during his career, including: September 11 attacks in 2001; the Bali bombings in 2002; Boxing Day tsunami of 2004; Hurricane Katrina in 2005; Haiti earthquake in 2010, Grenfell Tower Fire in 2017 and too many plane crashes in between to mention.

Jensen has led an incredibly impressive and demanding career, and his empathy is evident when describing his work. I spent much of the book being shocked and outraged by just how poorly and insensitively many emergency situations have been managed in the past. In some cases, the total disregard for the feelings of the families made me absolutely furious. In one instance, all personal belongings from a plane crash had been frozen together in one big block in order to preserve them. Ummm, WTF?

There were some quieter revelations when learning more about the delicate process of recovering human remains at a site:
"When you're starting out, you don't know if a fragment is just one of many pieces you might find of a deceased person, or if it is the only part of that person you'll find. DNA testing takes time and we don't want to delay the system unnecessarily. Before we even do this, I will usually meet the Medical Examiner who will ultimately be in charge and who will issue the death certificates and ask, 'people or pieces'? I need to know if the goal is to account for every missing person, or to identify every bit of human remains that are recovered. It's a question most people have never thought of or could even conceive asking." Chapter 14: The Science and Emotion of Identification
Add me to the 'most people' category immediately with the gratitude that I'll never have to be the person making those big decisions. Jensen's approach to recovering the dead and their belongings is filled with respect and his lessons about caring for the living aren't immediately applicable to the average reader.

The life lessons he's learned along the way are more about preserving and maintaining dignity for the deceased at all stages of the process and employing common sense. E.g. In one case, Jensen refused to cut a body trapped in rubble in half in order to shield the distressing sight from view, instead laying a blanket over the remains. In another case, the hands of the deceased were cut off to facilitate quicker mass fingerprinting which caused unknown distress to the relatives and quite rightly upset the author.

In my opinion, the target audience for Jensen's memoir should be first responders, search and rescue, medical and law enforcement agencies and those in risk management. If a loved one was ever involved in a mass casualty event, I'd want Jensen overseeing the recovery process, however I believe he's best placed educating businesses, corporations and insurance companies on how best to respond in a mass casualty situation. It seems we still have much to learn.

If one type of man-made or natural disaster dominates Jensen's memoir, it's plane crashes. As it happens, I listened to the majority of this audiobook while at an airport or - ironically - flying to my destination. It did occur to me at one point (about an hour into a 90 minute flight) that perhaps listening to all this talk about plane crashes was bad karma when you're 30,000 feet in the air.

Back on the ground, I was full of admiration for Jensen and we desperately need more people like him - or people taught by him - on hand to prepare businesses and organisations for future disasters. As a reader fortunate enough never to have lost a loved one in a mass casualty event, my heart aches for those who have and are still navigating through the grief.

A difficult read.

My Rating:

Would you like to comment?

  1. This sounds fascinating, as you know my daughter is currently studying Forensic Science and one of her subjects this year looks at forensic processes in mass events. Thanks for sharing your thoughts

    1. Thanks Shelleyrae, I hope your daughter is progressing well in her studies, and she may well come across the amazing work done by this author or Kenyon International Emergency Services. I didn't even know they existed, instead assuming the responses were coordinated by local or national government organisations etc. Just a shame this didn't qualify for one of your challenge prompts!


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