Without a Trace

Professional death cleaners are hired to disinfect, deodorize and make it seem like it never happened

The old man died slumped over the arm of his couch while watching television. Two weeks later the cops kicked in the door and the coroner removed his body.

He was a man of letters: Wittgenstein, Russell and Kierkegaard lined his shelves. He had a fondness for simple landscapes, or at least for simple paintings of them. He liked to make bread.

An uncashed check sat atop a messy dining room table. Piles of trash filled the back bedroom. The tub was covered in scum.

That stain on the cushion is exactly what you think it is.
Keith Plocek
That stain on the cushion is exactly what you think it is.
Robert Demaret and Christian Cadieux tape off the scene...
Keith Plocek
Robert Demaret and Christian Cadieux tape off the scene...

His body was gone, but not completely. Fluids had been left behind as the corpse began disintegrating, and someone needed to clean them up.

"After about 15 minutes, once you pass, you lose all bodily functions," says Robert Demaret, whose company, USA Decon, is one of a handful of local outfits specializing in crime scene and trauma cleanup. He's a tall, affable guy with blue eyes.

"When your heart stops pumping, whatever position you're laying in, all your fluids go to the point of gravity and eventually your skin starts letting everything out. You don't necessarily just," he pauses, "your fluids don't necessarily just come out of your orifices."

Blood, sweat and tears -- not to mention bile, chyme and mucus -- leak from your body after death. Ashes to splashes, dust to crust. And that's just for a run-of-the-mill end of the road; suicides and homicides make things even messier.

No matter how someone goes, it's not going to be the cops, the coroner or the mortician who cleans up the mess after the body is gone. It's going to be the family or the landlord, unless they decide to call in a pro. And that's where people like Demaret come in.

He's a death cleaner.

Every job in the business is a little different, but the old man's passing left a peculiar set of circumstances for Demaret and his partner in grime, Johnny DiGulio, a clean-cut former accountant with wire-rim glasses.

After the authorities notified the deceased's relations, his family drove into town and tried to tackle the mess themselves. They chucked the blood-stained couch behind the apartment's parking lot (close to a pathway used by neighborhood kids), chopped out the carpet with a butcher knife and tossed it in the Dumpster. They had emptied half the kitchen's contents before grief took over and they decided to call someone.

"One contained area has now become three," says Christian Cadieux, a Toronto-based cleaner who was in town and decided to go along.

The trio had to neutralize all three scenes, clearing out anything the fluids touched and disinfecting the hell out of everything else. They cordoned off the Dumpster with red biohazard tape, knowing people would probably ignore it and throw trash in there anyway, and quarantined the other areas before heading up to IHOP for some food and water. And then it was time to put on hazmat suits and get to work.

Demaret went after the couch with a razor blade, pulling out fluffy clouds of padding overcast by feces. Half the sofa was covered in bodily fluids -- a state of affairs that wasn't unnoticed by the flies.

"The maggot process is repetitive," he mumbled through his protective mask. "One fly lays a hundred eggs, a hundred flies hatch."

Mixed in with the bugs and blood were screws and staples, plenty of opportunities for him to puncture his rubber gloves. It would've been hectic enough without the East Texas sun bearing down while he was covered head to toe in protective equipment. Soon he was drenched in sweat, and no matter how much it itched, he wasn't able to touch his face.

"All it takes is a dried flake of that blood to get in your eye, your nose or your mouth, and you have an exposure incident," says Cadieux, who was on indoor duty, disinfecting the entire apartment and dealing with the mess left on the floor: a few clumps of bodily fluids that looked like wet dog food.

He paced around the apartment, atomizer in hand, spraying everything he could with a product called Get the Odor Out. Death left the man's life wide open, and Cadieux made sure to disinfect and deodorize all of it.

Decomposition releases a bevy of gases, hydrogen sulfide and methane being the two stinkers, and there's always the risk of hepatitis B, which has been known to live outside the body for weeks. Just opening the windows wasn't going to cut it.

Back in the parking lot, DiGulio was crawling around in the Dumpster, trying to fish out the discarded carpet. "I went and got a master's so I can work in a Dumpster," he quipped. "Butcher knives and bloody carpet. It's like they're setting me up."

With several years' experience among them, the trio was done in a few hours. The job was nothing like the time the team worked through the night cleaning up the remains of a shotgun suicide in a garage covered in junk, or when they went to New Orleans post-Katrina and had to deal with the remains of eight or nine people who'd been abandoned in a hospice during the storm. That was the time they found a box on the roof full of emergency amputations: a femur, a knee joint, a bunch of decomposed flesh.

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