Death Cleaners

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

"In the summer I probably sweat out ten pounds a day," says Jennifer. "I'll take off a glove and there'll be pools of sweat in each of the fingers. And still it doesn't keep the smell of death from penetrating your clothes and hair."

On several occasions, Jennifer says, her crew has stopped somewhere for lunch only for nearby diners to catch one whiff of them and leave the restaurant. Their rules for dining out after a job: No Chinese food (the rice looks too much like maggots) and no barbecue (the tangy vittles remind them too much of human entrails).

"Hell yeah, it affects you," agrees Dougherty. "People think the job is cool and everything. But it's not. I laugh when people call me and say they want to get into this business."

Flipping through pictures of the bloodshed he's cleaned over the years, Dougherty pauses at a photo of a soiled and tattered airport hotel room. The room's occupant stabbed himself in the stomach. When that failed to kill him, he slit his wrists.

"At some point he decided he wanted to live, and he ran around trying to call 911. There were bloody handprints and footprints all over the place."

Another photo, another suicide. On the bloody bedroom walls, the victim penned a few rambling thoughts: Nobody loves you. It can't rain all the time. Nobody is gonna miss me.

"At least 50 percent of suicides, we find pornography and drug paraphernalia," muses Dougherty. "I guess if you figure you only have a few days left to live, do you hold back? No. These people go all out."

Even more disturbing, adds Dougherty, is the way families gloss over the issues leading up to a suicide. Even in death, there is denial.

"We'll come in to clean and the family will get upset that we're wearing our hazmat suits and taking precautions against pathogens such as tuberculosis, AIDS and hepatitis," he says. "They'll say, 'Oh, our boy wasn't into drugs or pornography. He would never do that!' And you want to ask them, 'Oh, and I guess he would never kill himself either?!'

"But of course, you don't dare say that. Instead you listen to them and say what you can to help them cope. Sometimes I feel like a mortician and a grievance counselor rolled into one. We probably cry on half the jobs we do. Who wouldn't?"

Jennifer recalls how a client showed up at her door one day saying she'd come to deliver a check. But really all the woman wanted was a sympathetic ear. Days earlier, her husband placed a handgun to his temple and pulled the trigger.

"Her family told her that her husband would burn in Hell for killing himself. The image was just too much," says Jennifer, who spent an hour consoling the woman. "I told her I didn't believe that. I said only God and her husband knew where they stood. It wasn't for her family to judge."

Jim Polk quit going on calls months ago, fed up with the filth and squalor. Jennifer believes God introduced her to the business and she's sticking with it until she hears otherwise.

"God will let me know when it's time to move on," she confides. "I love and hate my job at the same time. But at the end of my life, I'll know I made a difference.

"No, I didn't design a pretty dress that someone wore to the Oscars like I dreamed of as a little girl. But I'll be darned if someone is not going to remember me one day and say, 'During this horrible point in my life I met this really nice girl, and she really helped me out.'"

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