Bohlman hangs up gravedigging gig after 58 years
Not many people can say they have been digging their way with shovel in hand toward retirement for almost 60 continuous years. Unless you’re Lyle Bohlman of Owatonna.
Bohlman has been pitching dirt and digging graves for the past 58 ½ years at area cemeteries throughout Dodge and Steele counties. At 89 years old, Bohlman has decided to hang up the shovel and pass on the reigns to his grandson, Brandon Bohlman, also of Owatonna.
“I hate to think of quitting,” said Lyle Bohlman, whose digging and active lifestyle makes him appear to be one of the most fit people around. “It has been one hell of an interesting life.”
While he’s still healthy, Bohlman
admits age is catching up to him and reality is setting in.
by the Numbers
89 years old- Lyle Bohlman
58 ½ years of gravedigging
6,000 estimated graves dug since 1964
14 area cemeteries Bohlman has dug in
9 graves most dug in a single week
$1.25 per hour for gravedigging in the beginning
$600 per grave today; $450 for cremation
«I hate to think of quitting… it has been one hell of an interesting life.”
“There is no sense for me to pound my buns if I don’t have to,” he says. “There’s better things to do in life.”
The family had a retirement party on Saturday, Jan. 21 at Sparetime Entertainment Center in Owatonna. Bohlman provided the beer and appetizers.
He’s had a few scares recently that have made him think retiring is perhaps the best for a man who will turn 90 later this year.
In December, he slipped and fell on the snow while deer hunting. Even though he broke a rib and still nurturing some pain, he knows it could have been much worse.
“I’m lucky I didn’t break some hips,” Bohlman said. “I’m a tough old bird.”
He has also experienced some other personal setbacks over the past year. In August, DeLoris, his wife of 68 years, passed away. Lyle had been her caretaker for the past several years since she suffered from a stroke and COPD.
Bohlman’s son, Brian, of Dodge Center was diagnosed with cancer in July. That news was especially difficult for DeLoris, who made the comment to Lyle that she should die before their son does.
Besides gravedigging, Bohlman has been an active hunter for most of his life. He also enjoys trapping and runs a quail business.
He walks about a mile every day.
“I don’t feel any older than 80,” Bohlman said. “I can run a race with anybody.”
While Bohlman has never been known to sit still, he said his wife often lovingly asked him, “Aren’t you ever going to take a rest?”
Bohlman began gravedigging with his father, Leo, in March 1964. He recalls his first grave was dug for a barber at St. John’s Cemetery near Ellendale.
The business took off in a big way in 1971 when Gene Michaelson, former owner of Michaelson’s Funeral Home, came to town, Bohlman said.
In the early years, graves were dug exclusively by hand, often taking four to five hours to dig a single grave, according to Bohlman. He didn’t get any relief until 2006 when he began utilizing a backhoe. “Twenty minutes to dig and you’re done,” he said of the backhoes.
Bohlman estimates he has dug 6,000 graves over the years with nine being the most done in a single week.
He has dug graves at 14 area cemeteries stretching from Kenyon to Berne to Ellendale and Meriden and everything in between. He jokes about how he knows the country roads better than anyone else.
Bohlman charged $1.25 per hour and eventually raised it to $30 per grave for many years. Now they charge $600 per grave with cremations costing $450.
Gravedigging has produced some memorable moments over the years. One time a funeral director slipped into Bohlman’s freshly dug grave in his suit and dress shoes. He also remembers digging one grave with wind chills at -70. They took turns digging with one staying in a heated vehicle while the other dug in the blustery cold.
During the 1970s, he dumped gas onto a log pile and lit a plot of land on fire to thaw the ground. Bohlman even used a stick of dynamite once to get the job done.
“If somebody saw me doing it now, they would kill me or I would end up in jail,” said Bohlman of their digging techniques. “We did a lot of crazy things to dig a hole,” he added.
Bohlman figures he’s used at least 25 shovels over the years to dig. He’s even thinking of framing one of his now tattered shovels.
And he was known to put all his strength into digging.
“I would dig so damn hard that I would get dizzy,” Bohlman said. “I don’t know how I ever did it,” he said, quickly adding “I think it was a cold beer that did it.”
Some days he came away from digging graves wondering if he was ever going to walk again. “What a wild time,” he said.
Asked what advice he has for his grandson, Bohlman replied: “Just keep digging. Get up in the morning, go to work and stay with it.”
Bohlman said he enjoyed gravedigging all these years because it was peaceful work and it got him outdoors by wildlife where he loves to be.
“Nobody bothered you,” he said. “I could come and go when I wanted. It was a super job, and I’d do it again.”