A Brit’s life as a German crime scene cleaner

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.

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

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.

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.
For members


EXPLAINED: Who will benefit from Germany’s minimum wage hike?

Germany's new €12/hour minimum wage, which came into force on October 1st, is set to benefit more than six million people. We look at exactly who is going to be helped by the €1.55/hour increase.

EXPLAINED: Who will benefit from Germany's minimum wage hike?

How much has the minimum wage risen by?
As of October 1st, the minimum wage now stands at €12 per hour, up from €10.45 previously, i.e. an increase of almost 15 percent.

How many people are going to benefit from the increase?
According to the Hans Böckler Foundation’ Institute of Economic and Social Research (WSI), a trade union-linked research foundation, there are at least 6.64 million people who were earning less than €12 per hour before the increase. This includes 3.5 million women and 2.7 million men.

Will this mainly benefit people in full- or part-time work?
If we look at the number of hours worked, we can see the following picture: 1.4 million full-time employees will get a boost to their earnings, and 1.8 million part-time staff and three million people with so-called ‘mini-jobs’ will earn more per hour. A mini-job is where you can either earn a maximum monthly sum or work for no more than three months/70 days per year. Those who only have a mini-job don’t have to pay social security contributions.

The upper earnings limit for people with mini-jobs also rose on October 1st. People can now earn a maximum of €520 per month, up from €450/month previously. 

READ ALSO: The rules in Germany around mini and midi jobs

Does the increase have anything to do with the current energy crisis?
No. The coalition government had already planned this before Russia invaded Ukraine and the resulting energy crisis. After the Bundestag (lower house of parliament) passed the draft law on June 3, 2022, it was confirmed by the Bundesrat (upper house) on June 10 where concerns about the cost-of-living crisis played a key role in the final debate. At that time, several politicians warned that spiralling energy prices and inflation were making many people’s living situations untenable. The government has since introduced other initiatives to help people cope.

READ ALSO: Wohngeld: How people in Germany can get help with rising living costs

In which sectors will the increase have the biggest impact?
More than 60 percent of people working in the hospitality sector will be affected by the increase. According to government data, 46 percent of those working in the agricultural and forestry sector were earning below €12/hour. Thirty-two percent of those in the property sector and 29 percent in the transport and warehousing sector also earned less than the minimum wage.

What are trade unions and employers’ associations saying about the hike?
The German Trade Union Confederation (DGB) has been pushing for an increase for a long time. DGB head Stefan Koerzell recently called the step “a ray of hope in these difficult times”. But the Confederation of German Employers’ Associations’ BDA called Labour and Social Affairs Minister Hubertus Heil’s draft law for the increase of the minimum wage “extremely questionable” from a political and legal perspective. The BDA’s criticism was not targeted at the increase itself, but rather the fact that it was the legislator who was deciding on wage increases instead of employers and trade unions.

What role do trade unions and employers’ associations play when it comes to the minimum wage?
Normally a big one – they sit on the minimum wage board. This committee normally proposes the incremental increases for the base hourly salary, which was introduced in 2015 – it then stood at €8.50. The new legal increase to €12 is outside of this usual mechanism, but the coalition government has promised that after this, the minimum wage commission will be responsible for future increases once again. 

READ ALSO: Everything that changes in Germany in October 2022