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‘Who Owns the Dead?’ explores aftermath of tragic 9/11 attacks

“This is not a book for the faint of heart,” warns author Jay D. Aronson a mere two pages into his book, “Who Owns the Dead? The Science and Politics of Death at Ground Zero. The book is also not for those who want entertainment, conspiracy theories or a place to set blame. The book is not for those who seek answers about the tragedy of Sept. 11, 2001.

Instead, this nonfiction work focuses on understanding the results of the terrorist attacks at the World Trade Center. Instead of an in-depth analysis of what happened or why it happened, Aronson chooses to look at another question: what next? The book explores what happened after the attack, from identification of remains to creating a memorial and all the obstacles and struggles along the way.

The book owes its title to retired New York Deputy Fire Chief Jim Riches, who unsuccessfully tried to publish an opinion piece with the same title in the New York Daily News. Riches was one of many who lost a loved one during the attack, and was not the only one to question what would be done with the remains.

That question, which is at the heart of this work, is decidedly complicated. Aronson recounts the promise of Chief Medical Examiner Charles Hirsch to identify every remain that was found. For some families this brought hope, while for others it brought heartbreak. As the city of New York found out, there were often conflicting emotions in the families of victims. For the Office of Chief Medical Examiner, this promise has meant continued work on the project, especially as new discoveries in DNA testing emerge.

The science of identification is only one of many issues of “owning” the dead. The questions of memorialization and proper excavation brought along political concerns. Many families of victims felt their loved ones were not being honored properly and that political figures including Mayor Rudy Giuliani were brushing off their concerns. There was tension at every step along the way between politicians, architects, engineers and grieving families.

As a historic account, it is almost assumed that the book is organized chronologically, beginning with the day of the attack and ending with the dedication of the memorial. While these are the beginning and end points, the middle is not strictly chronological. Instead, Aronson peels back layer by layer of the scientific, political and emotional mess that followed the attack to show the larger tangle left behind.

Overall, the work does a beautiful job of giving insight into the tough decisions that surrounded the aftermath. For those of us that were too young to fully understand the implications of the attack or the battles that continued for years after, this book explains the ongoing trauma of tragedy. The work challenges readers to look at the disaster history of 9/11 in a different light.

This book is not for the faint of heart. This book is for those who are interested in questioning how Americans view tragedy, and exploring how the devastation of 9/11 has become a part of our collective history. This book is for those who understand the struggles between grief and progress, and for those who are interested in getting through trauma.