Personal Effects (2021)
By Robert Jensen
Robert A. Jensen’s Personal Effects: What Recovering the Dead Teaches Me About Caring for the Living speaks candidly and graphically about his experience as commander of the 54th Quartermaster Company-Mortuary Affairs, and as the current Chair of Kenyon International Emergency Services; and, about what his job is during a tragedy’s aftermath. In his introduction, he speaks about the Swissair Flight 111 crash and the recovery efforts. What he is tasked to do is find items that are “reminders of lives lived” as well as “glimpses of the people we knew, how they lived and how they died”; but he is quick to say his real purpose is “to help the living.” He continues: “I can’t offer them closure, but I do offer them a way to manage their recovery and create the best chance for them to transition from what was normal to what will be, for them, the new normal.” Throughout, numerous anecdotes prove Jensen’s claim, including stories stemming from the world’s most devastating, newsworthy, and fatal natural and unnatural disasters: the Oklahoma City federal building bombing; Haiti’s 1994 earthquake; the Lockerbie, Scotland Pan Am crash; the Manchester, England suicide bombing, among countless others.
One memorable story is presented in a chapter entitled “Picking Up the Pieces.” Jensen focuses on Alaska Airlines Flight 261, killing 88 people, but buried in the middle is a conversation about a Middle-Eastern plane crash and a victim’s stoic wife. He writes: “She was in a state of emotional paralysis, so some of the people tasked with guiding her through this terrible moment in her life thought she was cold and didn’t care. But that wasn’t the case at all. No remains of her husband had been recovered, and therefore she was struggling to believe he was actually dead. But he was dead.” Jensen states the “no body, no death” response is common, and he is often tasked to be the bearer of bad news; however, whenever he can, he will attempt to find the body. Regularly, these bodies are dismembered, so it takes months/years to identify them. In this case, however, Jensen, “got lucky: when everything was untangled, it was a single body, all parts joined together by skin or sinew, with specific identifying figures.” He picked up the wife and drove her to the airport to see her husband’s casket; she “started to cry. She was taking her husband home.” For someone to do this, to put together a body so family members can find some comfort, they must have love.
Personal Effects is not just a series of horrific stories, but it is also a sobering look at what death can be. Jensen states that death is meant to undo meaning—it could be a logistical and expensive nightmare. Human life has value; it is hard to process, and when it happens unnaturally, a special series of hoops have to be jumped through to ensure that victims’ belongings and bodies get collected properly and sent back to family. And yet, death, whether it happens to one or one hundred, becomes a reason for human beings to show solidarity during a time of grief and pain. Jensen’s work displays this while also being true to his experience as a man who ultimately gives the living some peace and the dead some dignity: “Because beyond ensuring that a body has a name, dignity is one of the only things you can actually offer the dead.
Everything else has already been taken away from them. What you are trying to do is work as quickly and safely as possible so you can get the body home to the family, so they can begin to make the transition from their old reality to a new one.” What Robert A. Jensen does for a living is search for the dead, but he also shows us that love for one another does not always have to be just joyous affection; sometimes true love takes the sacrifice of one’s own physical and mental well-being to be achieved.
— Dr. Douglas C. MacLeod, Jr.
State University New York Cobleskill