A Brit's life as a German crime scene cleaner

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Tom Barfield - [email protected]
A Brit's life as a German crime scene cleaner
A colleague of Rob Joseph's at the home of a hoarder in full protective gear. Photo: Rob Joseph

Rob Joseph was stationed in Germany for years as a soldier in the British army. When he went home, he found himself feeling out of place – so he ended up taking an unlikely turn in his career.


Cleaning up German crime scenes had never been a part of Rob's plan.

After eight and a half years serving in the British army – mostly in west Germany – he headed back to the UK and found he didn't fit in any longer.

"I went home and spent six weeks in England, but it just felt too weird," he told The Local.

"I didn't know anyone any more and I had difficulty settling in. I thought, stuff it, packed a bag and came for a holiday – and I haven't gone back since."

Rob fell into his crime scene cleaning job after work dried up in the building trade in the city of Paderborn, North Rhine-Westphalia.

A colleague at the struggling cleaning company he was placed at by the unemployment office left to start her own firm – and he soon followed.

An animal skeleton found in the home of a hoarder. Photo: Rob Joseph

"Anyone can be a crime scene cleaner – there's no special qualification," he said (although he himself made a point of getting a distance qualification to set himself apart).

"If you've got a strong stomach and a good sense of humour, you can do it."

Humour in particular is a critical mechanism for getting past the dark parts of the job, which has seen Rob clean anything from the former homes of hoarders, to the apartments of elderly people who passed away unnoticed, to murder scenes.

Germans often comment that Rob's English humour must be what's getting him through the day – although he also faces constant questions about much-loved German comedy series Der Tatortreiniger (The Crime Scene Cleaner), which he's never seen.

While Rob has "OK" German after 20 years of living and working in the Bundesrepublik, including on building sites and pubs, a comedy about his own profession isn't his preferred choice of viewing.

"Everyone asks me if I've seen it, tells me I have to watch it," he said.

'Lonely pensioners are the worst'

Rob has been called out to some truly gruesome scenes.

He mentioned one incident at a factory where a man's head had been crushed by a palletizer machine.

"As soon as the police were out the door they called us in," he remembered. "It had shut the factory down and turned into an emergency."

Other gory jobs have included places where people have had accidents or committed suicide with shotguns, or a murder where the victim's throat was slashed, spraying blood over a wide area.

A crime scene cleaner examines traces of blood at a home in Paderborn. Photo: Rob Joseph

But in the end, what most affects him is "the old man or woman who dies alone and no-one notices until the smell gets bad," Rob said.

"There's a hell of a lot of people out there who just die on their own. They can be in a house with 10 apartments, people walk past and there's a horrible smell but they don't notice."

Sometimes there's nothing for it but a giant tank of disinfectant. Photo: Rob Joseph

These jobs can often be the most personally affecting.

Although the deceased person's remains are difficult to dispose of, what Rob finds more devastating are their personal effects.

"The whole room has to be cleared, and you find so many family things, old photos – a whole life just gone and nobody there," he said. "It makes me reflect on my own future."

No plans to leave

But while Rob has struggled with mental health issues, including post-traumatic stress, he has no plans to quit his unusual job – or the quiet life in Paderborn.

It's a "boring, shitty little place" that's locked down by a conservative church-going community, he said, "but I like it, it's peaceful."

In his downtime Rob is a street photographer and an avid reader, who likes nothing better than curling up with a book and his cats at home.

In his spare time, Rob Joseph is a street photographer and avid reader. Photo: Rob Joseph

He's deeply integrated into his local community after a stint working at a local pub and making friends when he first arrived, 20 years ago.

And all that means he has no plans to head back to the UK.

"I listen to [BBC] Radio Two quite a bit, I keep in touch with what's happening, an open ear on the news, but sometimes I find it laughable," he said.

With six years of army life in Germany after he joined up aged 20, plus more than twenty years in Germany as a civilian, he's lived here for longer than he ever lived in Britain.

"I've been back twice in 20 years," Rob said, and he has no plans to make a more regular habit of it.



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