On call with the death cleaners

DEP Traumatic Cleaning is called in to mop up after murders, suicides and decomposing corpses They are also experts at clearing hoarded garbage in homes

Patricia Peiró
An employee from DEP Limpiezas Traumáticas. The company's protective masks are second only to those used at radioactive leak sites.
An employee from DEP Limpiezas Traumáticas. The company's protective masks are second only to those used at radioactive leak sites.Álvaro García

Blood is the hardest thing to clean in a house with laminate flooring. If there is a lot, every time someone steps on the boards the blood squeezes out between the cracks. If there is just a little, it coagulates under the boards and a week later fills the house with a disgusting rotting stench.

The workers at DEP Limpiezas Traumáticas (or, DEP Traumatic Cleaning) have come to this conclusion after four years spent eliminating all traces of suicides, murders, garbage piles accumulated by people with Diogenes syndrome - so-called senile squalor syndrome - and unclaimed bodies in the city of Madrid.

The service is as necessary as it is unpleasant, and the industry is a small one: there is one other company called Profinet that performs the same work in Barcelona, while a third one based in Asturias has shut down.

The coagulated blood that requires cleaning today belongs to a man who committed suicide a few weeks ago by shooting himself with a rifle. The blood splattered all over the place and flooded the hallway. DEP workers were forced to remove the entire flooring, disinfect the area, clean the walls and repaint them. They like to say that they are more than just a cleaning company, and that their mission is to ensure that nobody will remember what happened at the sites where they work. On this occasion, they even redid the grout between the tiles to make sure the client would not find any traces there, either.

The photos feature bloody floors, garbage piled high and an infestation of worms

Miguel Merino and his wife Ana Belén Sánchez are the owners of this business, which hires personnel according to its needs. After years of experience working for a funeral home, they realized that some families faced a particular problem after the burial: "Who's going to clean this up?"

"There is no current legislation regarding the sanitary state of a home where a person has died," Merino explains. "It's not just about cleaning, it's about disinfection."

When the business got started, workers traveled to Miami several times to learn from companies that perform the same work over there. "Over there it is mandatory to have a disinfection certificate before selling or renting a home; if it has not been cleaned properly, residents could contract diseases," say DEP managers.

The service is offered at morgues. Some families do not know what they will find when they walk into the house. Some decide to do the cleaning themselves. Others hire traditional cleaning companies. But some choose to bring in the specialists.

Smell is the great enemy and the cleaners have two weapons to fight it

The computer at DEP is full of folders with videos and photos of before and after pictures. The former feature bloody floors, garbage piled window-high, and worms that took over a home where a dead body lay forgotten for weeks. The remains of death always try to conceal themselves: just as the blood drips under the floors, worms hide their eggs in door frames and mattresses absorb the bodily fluids of those who died in bed.

The cleaning process is scrupulous. A security perimeter is created by setting down a disinfected canvas on the landing. Workers then don their white waterproof suits, which they will not remove until the job is done. Their hands are protected by latex or cloth gloves that in turn get covered by a second set of long, shoulder-length rubber gloves. They breathe through masks whose protection level is second only to the types of mask worn at radioactive leak sites.

The cleaners also carry bags with different color codes: red is for organic remains. While blood is the grisliest assignment, the hardest work of all is sorting the garbage. Some people hoard tons of it inside every room in their house before their death. These are the serious cases of Diogenes syndrome, which mostly affects elderly people who live alone. The bathroom, the kitchen and the living room cease to perform their regular functions and become an extended dump. In one of the archive photos at DEP, it is possible to make out the shape of a human body stamped on to a three-centimeter layer of trash covering the floor.

Yet the worst part of it is not what you see, but what you smell. Smell is the great enemy. Cleaners have two weapons to fight it: the ozonator and the ionization device. The former releases ozone, which breaks down and disinfects the air, but it is such a powerful device that it must be left alone while it is in operation: after just 10 minutes, eyes dry up, throats start to itch and it becomes hard to breathe. The home later needs to be ventilated for as many hours as the ozone machine has been in operation. A 50-square-meter apartment requires four hours. The second device "generates clean air," according to the workers, and is used in the last phase of the cleaning work.

After the home has been ozonated, the time has come for scrubbing, scraping and sorting. When the disinfection gases have done their work, the cleaners inevitably remove their masks. The protective suits are so uncomfortable that workers forget the repulsive environment around them and take off their gear. That is when death penetrates into the sensory system. Miguel Merino recalls that when he took a lunch break on his first day on the job, he went to a nearby restaurant and ordered a plate of steak and potatoes. The steak tasted putrefied, and so did the potatoes. The problem was not in the dish, of course, but in his own mouth.

The price of the service depends on the magnitude of the tragedy. Merino first inspects the place and offers a quote depending on the time and workers required for the job.

"The other day we had to clean a hallway; that was 400 euros, but if the situation is worse, the price goes up," he explains.

Merino recounts one of his latest jobs: cleaning a detached house in Madrid to eliminate all traces of a Diogenes syndrome case. It took four workers an entire week to get rid of all the trash accumulated over the course of four years. The price tag: over 4,000 euros.

After a certain amount of time has elapsed and relatives have okayed the cleaning work, Ana Belén Sánchez deletes the files containing the photos and videos. Their job is done. It is the final step in the elimination of the final traces of a traumatic death.

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