Personal Effects

What Recovering the Dead Teaches Me About Caring for the Living
by Robert A. Jensen
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The owner of the world’s leading disaster management company chronicles the unseen world behind the yellow tape, and explores what it means to be human after a lifetime of caring for the dead.

You have seen Robert Jensen—you just never knew it. As the owner of the world’s largest disaster management company, he has spent most of his adult life responding to tragedy. From the Oklahoma City bombing, 9/11, the Bali bombings, the 2004 South Asian Tsunami, Hurricane Katrina to the 2010 Haitian Earthquake and the Grenfell Tower Fire, Jensen is at the practical level of international incidents, assisting with the recovery of bodies, identifying victims, and repatriating and returning their personal effects to the surviving family members. 

Personal Effects is an unsparing, up-close look at the difficult work Jensen does behind the yellow tape and the lessons he learned there. The chronicle of an almost impossible and grim job, Personal Effects also tells Jensen’s own story, how he came to this line of work, how he manages the chaos that is his life, and the personal toll the repeated exposure to mass death brings, in becoming what GQ called “the best at the worst job in the world.”


Featured Reviews

Publishers Weekly: In this gripping albeit grisly memoir, Jensen (Mass Fatality and Casualty Incidents) shares highlights of his career in disaster response. Now the chairman and owner of Kenyon International Emergency Services, Jensen’s first experience with “sudden, large-scale catastrophes” came in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, where he served in the U.S. Army’s mortuary unit. He describes the painstaking work of trying to match severed body parts, and explains how disaster response entails managing the needs of victims, their families, and the investigation. Gruesome details and corporate indifference abound as Jensen recounts disasters such as 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, the 2010 Haiti earthquake, and the Grenfell Tower fire in London. He advises readers to take good care of key documents, including birth and marriage certificates, that are necessary to settle an estate, but claims not to reflect much on the fleeting nature of life or his own need to “bring order to chaos.” Readers with a strong stomach will be fascinated by this up-close look at what it means to take charge of the response to an unspeakable tragedy. 

Library Journal: Have you ever thought about what happens after a mass fatality event? How do the dead get recovered and counted? How do victims’ personal effects, like a pair of glasses, reach their family? In his first book, Jensen, who takes care of these details as a profession, offers his experiences, lessons he’s learned, and an interesting behind-the-scenes glimpse into a grim but necessary world. Putting sensitivity and privacy first and foremost, Jensen has written an unparalleled memoir about the aftermath of tragedies like the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, the Grenfell Tower Fire in 2017, and the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami, all of which he has dealt with as the owner of the world’s largest disaster management company. Readers are invited to see every aspect of such events, including recovery of bodies, family assistance, and prolific and painstaking research. He shares best practices for post-disaster management and insights about specific events and mass fatalities in general. VERDICT Jensen’s thoroughly engrossing personal account invites readers to witness an almost unseen arena of disaster management.—Laura Hiatt, Fort Collins, CO

Ye Olde Bookshoppe: This book actually pulled at my inner being. After more than twenty years of dealing with countless deaths of all kinds. You see people, not as people (at least for me ), yet more as an object, another broken thing that now needs to be tossed away, so you can move on to the newest better thing. But the way Jensen writes, this book makes people, people again… 

Praise for Personal Effects

Robert Jensen's revelations of recovering the dead create a gripping and page-turning experience, indeed. But what stood out to me was his deep concern, respect for and commitment to giving the proper tools to those left behind; the ones forced to pick up the pieces in their grief and cobble them together into a new life. By showing—and not merely telling—them that their loved ones will not be forgotten, he plays a role in alleviating their suffering, and teaches us all of the importance of doing the same.

Rebecca Soffer, coauthor of Modern Loss: Candid Conversation About Grief. Beginners Welcome.

Personal Effects is a moving and fascinating glimpse at what comes after the worst has happened . . . Ultimately Personal Effects offers reassurance: even after a mass tragedy causes the total breakdown of all the systems we take for granted, order and dignity are possible. A crucial read for anyone who dwells on worst case scenarios.

Lauren Larson, features editor at Texas Monthly

Robert Jensen delivers a powerful and riveting book of the toughest work a kind person can do. I could not stop reading until I finished every word, and then with tears streaming down my face, In the midst of the most horrible tragedies, there is one person you want to be there—Robert Jensen.

Mary Schiavo, Former Inspector General of the US Department of Transportation and CNN Aviation/Transportation Analyst

Jensen has lived a life few of could fathom, or frankly endure. And for this we should be grateful. Through his face to face encounters with unmeasurable carnage, we are taught the tenets of survival, perseverance, and compassion.

Patrick Smith, bestselling author of Cockpit Confidential