Death Cleaners

Meet the people who scrape up the most godawful messes in Missouri

Jennifer Polk's job is to mop up the hellish mess, not ask questions. But to her trained eye, the sticky remnants of a suicide tell plenty.

"You can tell by the teeth in the ceiling that he placed the barrel under his chin," observes Polk, whose Jefferson County firm, Midwest Crisis Cleaning, is one of but a few local businesses engaged in the macabre industry of death cleaning.

"When they put the barrel in the mouth, everything above the teeth blows up. The jaw usually stays intact."

Becca Young
Becca Young

It's been at least 72 hours since the victim ended his life in this nondescript apartment in west St. Louis County. Earlier on this gray February morning, the coroner's office arrived to collect the body. Still, there's so much more to clean.

Congealed blood blankets the room, lending the walls the appearance of an ersatz Pollock abstract. The shotgun blast ripped through the victim's skull and punched a hole through the ceiling. A narrow stream of sunlight now pours through the fist-size opening, penetrating the darkness.

The suffocating odor of death hangs heavy. Religious books scattered across the floor — the Bible and Jehovah's Witness literature — reveal the victim may have been searching for a higher power he never found.

Dressed in blue hazmat suits, the 33-year-old Jennifer Polk and her crew of four men — full-time firefighters and EMTs whom she hires at $50 per hour — diligently begin the grisly task. Parts of the walls can be wiped free with virus-killing disinfectants and household cleaners. Others will have to be replaced with new drywall. Any fabric tainted with body fluids — including the bloodied sofa-sleeper on which the victim fell — is placed in red biohazard bags destined for a medical-waste incinerator.

With clinical calm, Polk points to a waxy blot on the wall and asks, "You see that stain there? That's brain matter. It's almost impossible to get off."

In the corner of the room, a moist and matted section of scalp might be mistaken for a small, drowned rodent. Next to it, the athletic Polk bends down to pick up a tablespoon-size fragment of skull.

"I'm always surprised how absolutely clean skull comes out," she says matter-of-factly. "It's so white and clean. No fluid whatsoever."

Soon, she's tiptoeing around the room like a beachcomber, filling a Ziploc freezer bag with the jigsaw-puzzle remains of the victim's crown. Her employees look on in shocked silence.

"Normally we joke around during jobs," she concedes. "You couldn't do this without a sense of humor. But look at this piece of scalp. You can see where he parted his hair. He was what, maybe 25 years old?"

Kris Dougherty says he got into the death-cleaning business a dozen years ago.

"If you told me I could have ten of these cleanups a day, I wouldn't want them," says Dougherty, who charges as much as $20,000 for the most repugnant scrub-downs. "Unfortunately, there's a need for this. I look at it as a civic duty, like nurses or teachers."

As president of a company that provides cleaning services to hotels, Dougherty routinely received calls from clients asking him if he could sanitize a room following one's final summons. Hotels, notes Dougherty, are popular destinations for people with a death wish.

"They want to get away from their natural environment. Go someplace no one can find them. A hotel is the logical choice," posits the 45-year-old Dougherty, whose St. Ann-based Anchor Trauma and Fatality Service has deterged dozens of hotel suicides over the years.

Hotels relieve the victim's family the burden of having to hose off the hideous leftovers, adds Dougherty. "If you really want to do a clean suicide, go in the bathroom, shut the door, get in the shower, turn the water on — then shoot yourself."

It's not just suicides. Not sure what to do with the decomposing remains of that bedridden aunt? Stumble upon the scene of a blood-drenched homicide? Find a co-worker's corpse pinned beneath the conveyor belt?

Call a death cleaner.

"The medical examiner will get the bulk of it," says Dougherty. "But their job is not to clean. Generally any body part smaller than a quarter gets left behind."

That leaves lots of work for Dougherty and his crew, especially when assigned the more ghastly jobs — like the time three years ago when a man literally blew himself up in a popular Soulard eatery.

News articles reported that the repairman was recharging the restaurant's refrigeration system when a tank of Freon exploded, killing him just prior to the lunch-time rush.

"The guy didn't have time to say, 'Oh, shit!'" recalls Dougherty. "There was nothing left of him from the waist up. He was literally all over the kitchen.

"We were scraping him off the walls with spatulas, and I could tell some of my people were about to lose it. Finally, I picked up an egg and yelled, 'Look. An eyeball!' I tossed it at one of my guys and it splattered all over the floor. That broke the dour mood and we could get down to business."

Jennifer Polk wears her strawberry-blond hair in a Jennifer Aniston coiffure. Attractive and sincere, she's the type of person who, when telling a story, will grab hold of her subject's arm, drawing the person's attention to her clear blue eyes.

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