Current Occupation: Writer
Former Occupation: I've been so many things, how do I choose? Party bus owner, detention specialist, art department coordinator, bartender, concierge…
Contact Information: Pamela Skjolsvik is a wife, mother, crazy cat lady and coffee enthusiast. Her exploration of death professions morphed into her memoir "Death Becomes Us." She has been published in Creative Nonfiction, Ten Spurs, Witness and various online zines. She also blogs at www.thedeathwriter.blogspot.com.
Working as a proofreader for the phonebook is akin to working in a death profession. Not only are we environmentally incorrect tree killers, we’re also stupid and cumbersome in comparison to modern day technology. It’s glaringly apparent to anyone with a smart phone that the yellow pages are destined for a slow and painful death in the next few years. But, for now, it’s my job and I’ve got to do it. I stare down at the full page ad in front of me looking for misspelled words or a dyslexically rendered phone number from one of the artists. It’s a full page, multi-color ad that mentions floods, fires, dirty carpets, and in smaller print—biohazard cleaning. I can’t believe I’d never thought of crime scene cleaners before. While Durango isn’t exactly the murder capital of the world, plenty of people die at home and aren’t found for days. It’s the perfect profession for me to explore right now in that it won’t be too dark, depressing or emotionally taxing after the last couple of weeks I’ve had.
When I meet John Rivas at his place of employment, we settle into his cluttered, paper strewn office. I find the messiness of his personal space somewhat ironic, considering he’s in the cleaning business. During introductions and getting to know you chit-chat, I discover that he’s a fast talker. I don’t know if that’s his normal conversational speed or if he has somewhere else to be.
“So, how long have you been the general manager at Best?”
“And are you the person that they send to a biohazard cleanup?
“Usually, yes. I try to go on every biohazard cleanup, every trauma scene cleanup, as we call it.”
“Is there a special certification that you all go through?”
“We’re all certified through the ICRC and that’s the acronym for institution for cleaning and restoration certification. And we do get certified through them. Basically the main thing the training dwells on is our safety. How to keep our staff safe while we’re dealing with blood and bodily fluids.”
“How is it to deal with the families?”
“It’s tough. They’re distraught. They’ve got some things that are going through their mind. They’re not all there. So you just have to reassure them and help them feel that they’re going to be okay and that you’ll take care of the mess. I always invite them to stay somewhere else for the next couple of days while we take care of whatever we need to take care of.”
“Do they typically just want to leave?”
“Yes, they want to leave. Or they’re not even there. A lot of times I’ll deal with a relative. Let’s say it was a husband or a boyfriend. She can’t even function so I’ll deal with a family member, a son or a daughter, something like that. Um, I’ve never really been in direct contact with like a wife or a husband of someone who has killed themselves. It’s usually just a family member.”
“So, are you mostly dealing with suicides?”
“Most of the ones we’ve done are suicides. Yes.”
I ask him if the company he works for handled the cleanup of a fairly recent murder that occurred in an infamously shady motel in town. They did not. Nor did he think anyone with special certification cleaned up that scene, but he doesn’t want me to mention that.
“What kind of scenes have you had to deal with?”
“Suicides. And death. People dying in the home and forgotten about.”
“Like de-com-posed?” I stutter saying the word.
“We did one recently up at Tamarron. A guy died in the locker room and it was a holiday weekend. Monday they found him. After a few days the body fluids start to run out. There’s a little to clean up. Not much. I’d say most of the time it’s just suicides.”
He thinks for a moment like he’s on a game show.
“We’ve done jobs where deer have jumped through plate glass windows in the home and pranced around the house while they’re bleeding to death.”
For some reason this cracks me up. It’s so left field.
“It’s more common than you think. So. Yeah. They see themselves and they charge head first into the plate glass. And they end up slicing their necks open. They’re freaking out and they’re stuck in someone’s house bleeding out.”
“So with the suicides, is it mostly shotgun?”
“I have never done a shotgun. It’s either small caliber or handgun or it’s a hunting rifle. And the hunting rifles are hideous, hideous to clean up. A small caliber handgun is usually pretty easy to clean up. There’s usually just one entry hole.”
“So it’s not…”
“I can show you the difference if you like.”
Rivas swivels around to his computer and brings up a picture.
“Oh. Okay,” I gasp. I don’t really want to look at bloody rooms, but here they are.
“I’ll pull two different examples up.”
“Were these photos taken here?”
I feel like I’m at a morbid show and tell. I walk over to Rivas’s computer screen to get a closer look. Like a macabre Jackson Pollack painting, shades of brown, pink and red are splattered across the white walls of the room.
“This is a high power rifle suicide. And the results are however big the room is, it isn’t big enough.” He points at the picture. “This is brain splatter from twenty five feet away.”
He brings up another photo.
“And this is a small caliber. See? It’s quite a big difference.”
There is just a pool of blood on the couch and onto the floor. Gross, but not particularly daunting as far as cleanup goes.
“How many of these do you do?”
“I say we do probably three trauma scene cleanups a year. Maybe four.”
“Oh. That’s not bad.”
“No.” He brings up another photo. “This is the one I did last month.”
“Oh my gosh it’s everywhere.”
“Yeah and again it’s a high caliber rifle.”
I can’t believe how horrific these photos are. There isn’t a body, just what got blown away. I feel sick.
“The first few I went to were all small caliber and I thought, oh this is gross, you know, a small puddle of blood on the floor. But that was nothing compared to the hunting rifles and the 30 aught 6’s under the chin. Those are bad. It was a little tough. I mean, there’s somebody’s blood on the floor and brain on the ceiling.”
“So, how much does it cost to have this kind of thing cleaned up?”
“We don’t do a trauma scene cleanup for less than a thousand dollars and it goes up from there. But most homeowner insurance pays for it. That’s one thing that the family members usually don’t realize—that it’s covered by insurance. It’s tough to talk to them when you’re at the job to do the cleanup, because they’re already distraught. We just let them know that we’ll take care of everything and we’ll talk in a few days about payment.”
“So, how many people go on these cleanups?”
“The less people the better. You don’t want a whole bunch of people tromping around, especially if the family is still in the home. We go in with full Tyvek suit, which is white. And sometimes we get messy. The last thing we want is the family seeing us with their loved one’s blood on us.”
He confesses that these scenes sadden him, especially when he knows beforehand what happened to the people involved, like a man who killed himself in front of his girlfriend.
“One minute she’s cooking dinner, the next, she’s sprayed with blood.”
I admit to John that I wouldn’t want to know the specifics in order to keep that professional distance, but come on—this is real life, blood splattered, human drama. Whether we’ll admit to it or not, most of us slow down at a car crash and crane our necks to get a better look—either from curiosity or for the mere confirmation that all is still well in our insular little world.
Rivas asks me about this project, curious to know the other types of people I’m interviewing. I rattle off the obvious, embalmer, coroner, and hospice worker. When I tell him about my plans to talk with Mike Graczyk, an AP writer who has witnessed almost every execution in Texas since 1984, he is intrigued.
He shakes his head.
“Man, it’s one thing to clean up after someone dies, but I don’t think I could watch someone die.”
Lethal injection is clean and clinical and doesn’t require a Tyvek suit or an enzyme solution.
The hunting rifle picture fades from the computer screen and is replaced by a screen saver of John and his girlfriend. Their faces are squished together, beaming with happiness.
“So, this project. Is it eventually going to be a book?”
“That’s the plan. So, I probably won’t be the first person that will come to mind when you get another trauma call, but I’d like to give you my number just in case.”
“You mean to ride along?”
“Yeah, if that’s okay.”
He tells me that it would be fine if I rode along. With only three or four trauma calls a year, I may luck out and never have to see one.