- Associated Press - Saturday, June 6, 2015

BEMIDJI, Minn. (AP) - Most graves these days are dug with backhoes. Heavy machinery is fast, exact and doesn’t cause low-back problems.

Larry Pederson still uses a shovel. Over the past 25 years he’s dug something north of 100 graves by hand, many of them at night, by the light of a Coleman lantern.

“You look over your shoulder a little bit,” he said, “when it’s midnight.”

In the daylight hours, Pederson works construction around the small town of Deer River, Minnesota. Grave digging is his side hustle - though the term seems flip for the gravity of his work.

If you don’t know the term, a “side hustle” is an entrepreneurial venture nurtured in the early mornings and late nights of a 40-hour workweek, Minnesota Public Radio News (https://bit.ly/1cxU3Eo ) reported.

Census Bureau data suggest side hustles might be on the rise in Minnesota. The bureau keeps track of non-employer establishments - just one person working on his or her own. That number was about 389,000 in 2012 - up from 333,000 a decade earlier.

A good number of those 389,000 businesses are folks selling merchandise on the Internet, mowing lawns, or cutting hair in their free time - side hustles. A lot of them might also be guys who work full time as plumbers or electricians - not side hustles.

Very few of them are digging graves by hand.

I met Pederson in the early morning at Olivet Cemetery, on the outskirts of Deer River. That’s where he digs most of his graves, though he wasn’t working when we talked.

“All the ground here is sand,” he said. “It takes me about four hours in sand.”

Pederson is 66 years old. His beard is nearly white - his hands a collection of tendon and callus.

As we walked around the cemetery, he pointed out the newer stones and a mound of dirt off in the woods, where he puts the extra earth displaced by coffins.

Pederson digs about eight graves a year. Funeral homes pay him $500 per grave, and $700 in the winter. It’s good money for a night’s work in northern Minnesota - which is what got him started digging in the first place.

But back in 1992, Pederson had a young family. He had expenses his construction job didn’t quite cover. His boss at the time, a contractor and part-time grave digger, offered to pass the shovel on to Pederson.

“I had second thoughts about it at the time,” he said. “The first grave was in clay. It took me 12 hours.”

It’s been more than two decades since that first grave, and cemetery technology has advanced. Special backhoe attachments are designed to cut 4-by-8-foot holes with perfect precision.

Pederson isn’t in the market for upgrades.

“I’m not a real mechanical type person,” he said. “I don’t want to go into the expense.”

But it’s not just the money. Digging by hand puts Pederson very close to human mortality. Once, about 15 years, ago he unearthed an unmarked grave. He was 5 feet down in Olivet Cemetery, tossing shovelfuls of dirt, when a skull bounced back down at his feet.

He filled the whole thing back in, marked that plot in the cemetery book as occupied, and started over.

In the winter he has to keep a charcoal fire burning over each grave for two days to break the frost. It’s hard work. Most of the time he knows exactly whom he’s digging for.

Up on a small rise in Olivet Cemetery he paused, pointing to a disturbed piece of ground.

“That’s my wife’s grandmother,” he said. “I dug that grave too.”

Deer River is a small town. People know each other. So after he digs the grave, Pederson cleans up and goes to the funeral. When the family leaves, it’s his job to shovel the dirt back over the coffin.

Often he gets the feeling the person is at rest in the place he made for him. The place he made with his own hands.

“There’s a sense of peace,” he said.

Pederson figures he’ll stop digging in a few years. When he started, he knew a handful of other guys who dug by hand. One was a local Catholic priest, but he passed away years ago.

When Pederson quits, no one is likely to pick up his shovel. Most people, he said, don’t want to dig by hand anymore. Someone will just start up a backhoe.

That thought stopped bothering Pederson one night 10 years ago. It was midwinter, 30 below zero and blowing 30 mph across a cemetery near Ball Club. At 2 a.m., still rushing to finish the grave, he came to a realization:

“I’m going to be cremated,” he said.


Information from: Minnesota Public Radio News, https://www.mprnews.org

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