Cover Image: Personal Effects

Personal Effects

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Member Reviews

I was interested in this book because of its content and because it reminded me of a few other books I’ve gotten about after-death care and assisting families with their new reality. While I think the content could be interesting, it wasn’t in this book. This book was more of a memoir of the author with stories interspersed, which is not what I was expecting. There are better versions of this (think Written in Bone, Stiff, etc.). As an author, he is likable and his job is interesting, just not for me.
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3 impersonal stars 

Jensen’s writing is clear, honest, and descriptive, but not overly graphic, considering his subject matter of ‘cleaning up’ after disasters. For example, he writes that a “plane crash with only thirty-three people on board had more than nine hundred human remains fragments.” His company recovers the dead from hurricanes, airplane crashes, bombings, war sites and even New York City apartments in the beginning of the covid pandemic. One time they had to track down anti-venom serums before heading into a snake infested crash site. 

The book takes a while to get going. Jensen brings quite a bit of personal history to the stories about recovering bodies. The book is more about Jensen than about the personal effects of the dead. Stories were more technical (how things were done) than intimate. No names were used because of privacy issues, but that made it impersonal and distanced. Sometimes it was hard to read about so much violence and mass graves. Personal Effects is organized by subject and is not chronological, so it can be a bit disjointed and cycles back to incidents discussed earlier. 

Having spent a career in body recovery, Jensen offers some advice. “You have to have some basic skills and self-reliance.” “It’s not the storm that is actually the worst part. It’s the recovery, and no one ever plans for that.”

Thanks to Netgalley and the publisher for providing an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.
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Robert Jensen is the owner of Kenyon International Emergency Services, a disaster management company that travels all over the world helping cities, states, and countries recover bodies and personal items from disaster sites like 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, the South Asian Tsunami, or the Murrah Bombing in Oklahoma City. His company works diligently to safely and in an orderly fashion recover and identify bodies and body parts so that they may be properly taken for burial, ceremony, or other rites of passage.

As you might imagine, this is not a happy read. Its pages are full of death and destruction. The images he paints of the communities he travels to after a devastating weather event, plane crash, or terrorist attack are horrifying. But, I can say, without a doubt, his company is who I would want caring for my loved ones after this type of tragedy. Because even though it may seem that he is focused on those who died in the tragedy, his true purpose is to help the living. He can’t give them answers as to why this may have happened to their loved one, but he can bring closure by letting them know they recovered the body (or part of the body), DNA, or a personal item like a watch or an item of clothing, that then allows the family to move to a new normal and without their loved one. Too often, when families don’t have any information on their loved one, there is always a nagging feeling that maybe their family member survived or there is the pain of not properly burying their loved one.

Pretty much any disaster that has occurred over the last thirty years, Robert and his company have been there. It doesn’t matter if it is Christmas morning, his child’s birthday, or if he just got home the night before after being gone for several weeks. If his phone rings, he goes. What has frustrated him and caused him the most discomfort over the years isn’t all the death or sorrowful families, it is dealing with the bureaucracy and governmental red tape. Unfortunately, disasters happen in places around the world with governments that don’t have systems in place for handling tsunamis, plane crashes, hurricanes, or terrorist attacks. Finding out the jurisdiction of the location of the disaster and then managing the various governments involved relating to those who perished in the event can be mind-boggling and a paperwork/red-tape nightmare.

Jensen finds ways to be sure that dignity is the priority when it comes to identifying the deceased and then sharing that information with the family. Thankfully, DNA technology and identification have come a long way in the thirty years Jensen has been involved in this business. Even the smallest skin fragment can hold enough DNA to be able to connect it to a person, which can result in relief and comfort for a family..or not. A number of long-held family secrets have also been revealed in the identification of DNA samples. But, know that the old school forms of fingerprints and dental records are still the most useful and preferred form of identification.

His chapter on the Hurricane Katrina disaster was mind-boggling. It was the costliest and deadliest hurricane in US history. Because the US didn’t have protocols in place for this type of disaster, plus the number of agencies involved in making decisions, made the recovery efforts even more difficult. Between FEMA, the military, public health, Louisiana National Guard, police, and more, many hours were spent discussing HOW to search homes and buildings. For example:

“The US army said they would search by knocking on the door and asking if anyone needed help. Of course, the dead don’t typically respond. When asked if they would go into homes to recover bodies, the state was told no: under Title 10 of United States Code, the active-duty military can do that….Seven days went by as the state waited for the federal government to respond – in keeping with what emergency planners had been teaching – as their own resources were exhausted from rescue and lifesaving, not to mention from the incredible damage suffered by many people to their own property and the risk to their own families.“

To make matters worse, Louisiana’s legal system is based on the Napoleonic Code, not English Common law like the rest of the United States. So, that resulted in each parish being required to issue their own death certificates. So, that meant the location of the recovery mattered even though the storm didn’t care about legal boundaries. This chapter alone was unbelievable and makes me want to read even more about how the recovery process went so wrong for those who suffered from Hurricane Katrina.

There will always be some disaster hitting somewhere in the world. In fact, just this week, we are learning about volcanic eruptions and tsunamis in Tonga. Even though we can’t control the disasters and where they hit, Jensen and his company can help control the response and how people are cared for, both the living and the dead.
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I found this book absolutely fascinating. Robert Jensen had worked for decades in disaster management and in this book he talks about his career, the disasters he's worked and the impact on his life and the family members of the people he meets through the years. I found the details about 9/11, the airline crashes, the tsunami, the earthquakes to be fascinating but also very hard to read at times. This particular career is one that isn't talked about much but the importance of what they do to return personal effects when loved ones have been killed is invaluable and of the utmost importance to the remaining family. I loved this book!
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Robert A. Jensen is a man I hope not to meet in a professional capacity, but if I were to need someone in a disaster, he's the one I would hope to have helping me.  I think many people will avoid reading this book thinking it morbid or depressing, and that is unfortunate.  There are sad portions, certainly, but overall this is such a fascinating and eye-opening book.  I was aware in a vague sense that someone needs to pull bodies from the rubble in situations like 9/11, but the depth and breadth in which Jensen's firm works is astounding to me.  And while I try to contain my reviews to the books themselves, I feel I'd be remiss not to mention the care, dignity, and honor that Jensen brings to his career.  Jensen is also perceptive - I had questions throughout the book, and Jensen seemed to anticipate them and answer them (i.e. what is it like flying in a plane to assist with a plane crash?).  We all hope that we won't lose loved ones in a disaster - natural or man-made - but I think everyone be better prepared if they read this book first.

My only real complaint about Personal Effects (and again, I read an ARC so some issues may have since been resolved) is that it needed more editing.  Some anecdotes appear more than once, other sections of the book needed organizing, and there were many passages with large numbers of missing words and/or punctuation.  This hampered smooth reading, but it is such a worthwhile read regardless!
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This book was incredibly fascinating. I loved the way Jensen is able to handle difficulty, how he navigates massive and collective traumas with sense and level minded focus, and how he describes bringing that level of acceptance and calm into daily life. It was interesting in how these large catastrophes are handled, and for the character and life experiences Jensen shares that readers can learn from.
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Man. This book was hard to read. The subject matter could be described as sensitive at best and traumatic and anxiety-inducing at worst.

This book is part memoir, part guide, part philosophy. It tells of the author's decades of experience in disaster cleanup. His company is the one who shows up to deal with things when things like plane crashes, earthquakes, or terrorist attacks take place. It is his job to be a liason between the authorities and the families of the dead, to identify bodies as well as cataloging thousands of personal items and trying to match them to the victims and get them back to the victims' loved ones. 

Reading this book was similar to driving past a wreck on the highway. You don't want to look but you can't help it. The stories Jensen tells are frightening, heartbreaking, awful. There were many times I had to put the the book aside for awhile because it was sending my anxiety through the roof. (I am one of those people who reads about tragedy and my mind starts imagining what if that was happening to me or worse, to my children.)

Jensen is obviously a man with a great deal of compassion and respect for both the dead and their families and this comes through quite clearly in his writing.

The book could definitely have done with a bit more editing, at times it feels unorganized and therefore repetetive in places, but as a reader you're so deeply immersed in the writing that it's easy to overlook this.

Ultimately a good book covering an interesting topic in a way I haven't seen it done before, but very hard to read for emotionally sensitive people like me.
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Fascinating, held my interest and was the book I had to check in with every day, until it was done. But (and that's a big But) it is not a book for everyone - well, it is for everyone, But I'm pretty sure there are those who will give this a pass.

I'm rather morbid, and am interested in bodies after their spirits have parted. I ponder long about how we as the living, left behind humans, react to that puzzle, that unanswered question: the dead body. Robert A. Jensen has an absolutely, steady-freddy point of view on this topic. As he should. He's done this difficult job more than most, has been moved upon to write about it and share it with you and me. I, for one, am grateful.

Not only do we get an insider's view of what happens in large disaster events, the invisible is made visible for the time of reading the book, at least, of the service others carry on quietly doing while the rest of us look away, stare at the sunset or "think happy thoughts" rather than rush to lend a hand. After all, there are People to do that, right? This is the voice of one of those People. I am thankful for his service, and the service of all those like him who face daily trauma and still go home, fix dinner and help with homework.

I'm left with a wondering appreciation for the bravery, the years of doing hard things others don't and keeping a cool head in chaos, having respect for all others foremost, including the ones who've left behind their little bit of clay in this sweet place in the universe.

A Sincere Thanks to Robert A. Jensen, St. Martin's Press, and NetGalley for an ARC to read and review.
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I am going to be writing a review for this work in Penumbra...the review is due on November 15th, and it will be published in January...I do not have it written yet, but I did enjoy the book quite a bit.  Although the writer is very objective throughout, for a person to be able to do this for a living, he or she or they must be compassionate and caring to the victims and the victims' families.  I commend Jensen for the work he does and also for the way he helps those left behind find peace and solace, even if they cannot have their loved ones back.
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Personal Effects by Robert A. Jensen started out so well. It is interesting to me how the author goes about the process of not only finding bodies and personal effects from major disasters but also how they identify the bodies, how they handle dealing with the different governments, different beurocracies, not to mention the families. Dealing with that much grief on a day to day basis has to be horrendous. And while I thought the premise of this book was great, the execution could have been a little better. There was repetition at times, and things stopped flowing about half way through the book.  3⭐

Thank you to Netgalley, St. Martin's Press and the author for the eARC/ARC of this book. All options are mine.
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Thank you Netgalley and Macmillan Audio for the gifted book!

Robert A. Jensen is the Company Chairman and Co-Owner of Kenyon International, the world’s leading full-service disaster management company. In this book he talks about his experiences in retrieving human remains and personal effects from horrific circumstances. He has responded to The Oklahoma City Bombing, 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, and the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami. 

Jensen approaches these disaster situations in a very brusk and matter of fact way. But you would expect him to after over 30 years of dealing with death and destruction on catastrophic scales. His care though for the families left behind is evident in the way he speaks about them and the way he works to build systems of response that bring compassion to devastating situations. 

Jensen shares what he has learned from his experiences about life and about being prepared for disaster should it come. I think the things he shared are good nuggets of common sense and wisdom gained from his expertise. 

The only thing that kept this book from being amazing was the author's lack of humility. He has accomplished much, but he is also a fan of tooting his own horn. And his political commentary was a bit too harsh for my taste. I also feel like the book could have used a bit more editing and polishing to really help it shine. 

Overall though I found this a fascinating read and have spoken about it to many people who have asked me in the past week what the most interesting book I read recently was. This is one that will stick with me.
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I received this book as a free ARC thanks to Netgalley & the publisher.  This is my honest review. 

What a fascinating book!  I HIGHLY recommend - this included interesting stories on the behind the scenes of cleaning up tragedies, which is a viewpoint that I've never been provided before.  I also appreciated the useful crisis management, disaster preparedness tips and best practices that were provided.
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Personal Effects by Robert A Jenson

In this five star account of a necessary and meaningful job that most of us would never be able to do, Robert Jenson explains the intricacies of being the one to piece together the mysteries of the aftermath of tragic events. 

Did you ever wonder what happens to all the belongings found after an accident or natural disaster?  A few or a thousand people may have been involved. Families want to know about their loved ones. This is a solid explanation of how one goes about uniting the owner and his/her belongings with the deceased person’s family. 

Much tact is involved along with the sleuthing, while keeping the families up on procedures. 
Jenson reiterates that respect for the dead all through each job is paramount. 

Remember, it’s not just stuff. It’s memories restored. A wallet with photos, a ring, a favorite cap; they are a comfort to loved ones. Lucky for all, Robert A Jenson was on the job.
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Part memoir, part nonfiction, part tangential true-crime, Personal Effects is a stunning and mournful look at the detritus of a death: the keys, receipts, watches, and jewelry we leave behind, and how these artifacts can illuminate what happened. Robert Jensen, the owner of the largest disaster management company in the world, has masterfully woven his experiences with tragedy and its aftereffects into a moving portrait of a life spent on the trail of disaster.
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I really enjoyed reading the Personal Effects: What Recovering the Dead Teaches Me About Caring for the Living  by Robert A. Jensen because as the subtitle suggests there is great care and empathy when dealing with tragic moments. In a society where people want the answers in an instant, Jensen really describes why there is a need for patience in tragic circumstances, whether it is a terrorist bombing, a condo complex simply collapsing in the middle of the night, or a one person car fatality. 

There are few words to use in describing during these investigations that need to take place and the process in returning the deceased's belongings.  Jensen was able to describe that tragedies are universal in that people grieve in many different manner and the great ethical care that must be applied to maintain consistency for every single person in the tragedy. It is a evident that that Jensen is a professional and wrote this book in a direct and yet careful manner so that others in his field can avoid missteps that he has witnessed and really translate the recovery process for people that have or will experience a traumatic loss. 

***Many thanks to #Netgalley for the free digital ARC from the publisher in exchange for an honest and unbiased review.***
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This is a story about learning about the living by caring for the dead.

This was an excellent, heartbreaking book.  I cried a lot, and I think the capacity to spark that much emotion is the hallmark of something excellent.  The author’s experiences caring for the dead in a respectful and compassionate manner have left him able to speak to the human condition in such a unique way, and the writing is never dry.  I’ll recommend this all around!

Thank you so much Netgalley & St. Martin’s Press for this eArc!
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This was a deeply interesting book, written with great respect and insight.
It was written with grace and frankness.

I voluntarily reviewed an advance reader copy of this book.
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I received a free electronic ARC of this memoir from Netgalley, Robert A. Jensen, and St. Martin's Press.  Thank you all for sharing your hard work with me.  I have read Personal Effects of y own volition, and this review reflects my honest opinion of this work.  This is a book I encourage friends and family to read.  The sub-title says it all - What Recovering the Dead Teaches Me About Caring for the Living.  

I guess thinking about the logistics of sorting out mass disasters is something I never really wanted to consider.  What an enormous responsibility! Robert Jensen's first exposure to the many facets of death was during his time serving as a young man he was a police officer in California, as a serviceman in the Mortuary Affairs Unit in Bosnia after their four years war, and Haiti after their wars, but his first exposure to large scale, politically hot catastrophe in the United States was the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995.  Thereafter, even as a civilian, he played a lifetime's part in the hot spots around d the world, from earthquakes to hurricanes to the war dead and those slain as the result of political rebellions. If we read about it in the news, chances are he was there, taking care of the dead. Jensen's experiences, as horrific as they were, offer a much-appreciated guideline to the proper process of finding out the answers for the questions of the survivors of the dead.    

In this world we live in today, this is something we should get right.
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Mass fatalities, whether the cause is natural, accidental or intentional, require more than investigation. Someone needs to deal with both what remains and the families of those lost. That's what Robert Jensen's company does. It's complicated and exacting. It entails the physical aspects of recovery and identification of the victims and belongings, , the people skills to work with governments and companies, and tact and empathy while assisting survivors. Jensen's skills at organization are apparent in his writing and the structure of his book.  He describes the varied aspects of the work clearly and with examples. His personality and his commitment to giving the victims and their family members respect is welcome.

I thought about this book after the Champlain Towers South condo collapse and found the book had given me greater empathy for all involved. Thanks you, Robert Jensen.
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Have you ever wondered what happens to the victims of a disaster and all of their belongings? Who handles the logistics during the aftermath of a mass casualty event? Robert Jensen is an expert on recovery. His job is to recover and ID victims and make sure their possessions are returned to their families. He acts as a go between for the victim’s families and the government or companies involved. 

I find this subject matter incredibly fascinating. I am a worse case scenario kind of person. A “why not me?”, as opposed to a “why me?”, if that makes sense. Learning about the process that occurs after a disaster, such as a plane crash, gives me a kind of comfort. Knowing there are people like Jensen who care deeply about the victims, treat them with the utmost respect, and help alleviate the suffering of those left behind, calms me in a way. While this book deals with difficult subject matter, there is not a lot of gore and the morbid details are never overdone or dwelled upon. Jensen’s devotion to his work and deep respect for human life is abundantly clear.

I must say that this book really reads more autobiographical than a forensic study. This isn’t a critique, just wanting to forewarn readers. The book is a bit choppy and repetitive at times. A lot of it also reads like promotional material, which I can appreciate because Jensen is discussing his job, but it felt overdone in my opinion
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