As the number of single-person households and the elderly is on a continual rise, there are more people who die alone, in isolation. These people leave this world with no one to tidy up their cramped room or even their dead bodies. However, there are people who work on a tough job of arranging the last vestiges of solitary deaths. Kil Hae Yong, the representative of a special-purposed cleaning company, Sweepers, has devoted six years of his life on cleaning remnants of the deceased.
GTCan you explain the profession of a remnant cleaner, and how it was first introduced to Korea?
KilBasically, the job of a remnant cleaner is to arrange, reclaim, and incinerate the remnants of the dead in accordance with the requests of the bereaved or building owners. Many of the times, the deceased are left in their rooms for a long time, contaminating the room with maggots, water from the carcasses, and a serious stench as well. It is my job to clean the room, enabling the next tenant to live inside the room. The profession emerged more than ten years ago in Japan as the number of elderly solitary deaths increased, and it was introduced around 2010 in Korea.
GTWhat were your reasons for choosing your career as a remnant cleaner?
KilI decided to start a business as a remnant cleaner solely for financial reasons. I used to dream of becoming a chef, and I did actually own a restaurant, indeed. However, when I got to know this job, I thought it was a promising field where few people had dived into yet. So, I closed down the restaurant and embarked on a new enterprise.
▲ A photograph of Kil Hae Yong. Photographed by Kim Ji Won.
GTWhat were the reactions of your family and friends to your decision?
KilAlthough my parents were not really supportive, at least they did not oppose my decision. They respected my choice and told me to take full responsibility of my decision. It was my relatives and friends who made spiteful remarks to me. They did not understand the reason why I chose to give up my stable life and pursue an adventure.
GTCan you explain the process of cleaning?
KilMost of the traumatic scenes are relatively small, five to fifteen pyeong (approximately 16 to 50 square-meters), so we usually need two to four people for cleaning. When we arrive at the scene, my partner and I first work on the most serious part around the corpse. After that we bring ladder trucks or extra workforce to help us clean the rest.
GTWhat was the most memorable case you worked on?
KilAll scenes are memorable, but the remnants of a middle-aged man left me a strong memory. The man, who died without any family or friends, was discovered a month after his death. He was a daily employee, but as he got sick, he was not able to work. I found a pile of lotto, maybe more than a hundred, in his room. It must have been his last hope for survival.
GTWhen is the most rewarding moment in pursuing your career?
KilWhen I enter the scenes, I usually first look for tangible properties and emotional keepsakes to hand them to the family of the dead. I feel fruitful when the bereaved are consoled by the remnants. Also, currently, I am holding a position of chairperson in the Korea Trauma Crime Scene Cleaners, a nonprofit organization for cleaning up the deceased when asked by provincial offices or police stations. Though the earnings are relatively small, I still think that the volunteer work is meaningful and satisfactory.
▲ Provided by thumbnail.egloos.net.
GTWhat is the most difficult part of being a remnant cleaner?
KilThough it is a minor difficulty, scraping off wallpapers from the wall is the most irritating task. The wallpapers are glued in piles in older apartments, and while stripping them off, dust and vermin fall from the walls. I even got some allergies which I did not have before. On the broader point of view, the uncooperative behaviors of neighbors make the work extremely burdensome. Though people are aware of the need to clean the scene as soon as possible, they make a lot of complaints regarding the noise, smell, and inconvenience, all of which are unavoidable in the process.
GTI suppose your task could be psychologically distressful at times. How do you overcome such psychological traumas?
KilActually, I rarely get disgusted or suffer from trauma by the terrible death scenes. I do have a strong stomach, and I try to separate myself from too much empathizing with the dead. Having a job to face death everyday does not mean that I should always be depressed. I do have nightmares sometimes, frequently dream of maggots, but I take it casually.
GTThe number of solitary deaths is increasing every year. What efforts do you think the society should make in order to prevent them?
KilTo be honest, I believe that there is no answer to this question. Solitary deaths will always exist, and I expect time to solve this problem. Most people of the older generation have ladled out what they have earned in their entire lives to their children; thus, their later lives remain unprepared. I think any type of social movement trying to reduce the number of solitary deaths will not show significant success until the current elderly population leaves and the next generation steps in.
Unlike the expectation that the job of cleaning traumatic scenes will encompass much mental anguish and heroic resolution, Kil remained quite flat and placid while describing his profession. He even refused to answer the question “Do you have any words to say to the youth who only pursue comfortable jobs?” for he thinks it was simply natural for people to do so, and he does not put much meaning to his work. His serene attitude towards his uncommon career gives a more important lesson on our stereotypes and behaviors on perceiving difficult jobs. No matter how demanding the job is, a job should remain as a job. It should not seize oneself.