What if I was to tell you that you could gaze upon some of the most stunning works of art in the MidSouth in one of the most tranquil and natural settings in the state? Ok, then what if I told you that these works were located not half a block from Poplar Avenue and I-240 in the middle of Memphis?
What if I then tell you that you should spend a day enjoying all of them in a cemetery? Bear with me. If the thought of spending an afternoon in a cemetery in East Memphis doesnt quite appeal to you, youre not the only one. Memorial Park, with its many points of interest, however is worth the effort. The public park is home to the Crystal Shrine Grotto, renowned as the only manmade crystal cave in the world. And once you step in, you wont believe what you find.
I had heard about the grotto only a few months before and had become curious as to what everyone was talking about, so I decided to visit Memorial Park late one afternoon, only to find the grounds deserted and mine the only car in sight.
Driving through the mazes of tombstones, I finally came across a sign pointing me in the right direction. And convinced that I would see nothing more than some fairly unimpressive stalagmite, I stepped out of the car and made my way up some stone steps to the cool entrance of the cave. Dim figures and shadows met me at the door. Illuminated eyes of religious figures stared back at me.
I was so unprepared for such a sight, I must tell you, I nearly turned back. But once my eyes adjusted to the dark interior, I steeled myself and continued on. I was truly amazed at what I saw. I once traveled an hour by train outside of Prague to visit a church made completely of human bones and was never as awe-inspired as this.
Maybe it was my solitude, or maybe it could have had something to do with the twenty degree drop in temperature inside the cave compared to the 106 heat index outside. But I really think it was the shock of seeing something so beautiful, so hidden, right off of the busiest street in Memphis.
Built over the span of forty years, the crystal grotto was the creation of Memorial Park founder E.C. Hinds and Mexican folk artist Dionicio Rodriquez. Inspired by the Cacahuamilpa Caves of Mexico, Rodriquez imported five tons of Arkansas crystal in 1937 and began to create his shrine. He supervised the excavation of 60 feet into the natural hillside and carved concrete to look like stone for the walls.
Over the next ten years, he sculpted the backgrounds for ten scenes depicting the life of Christ, from his birth to his death and resurrection. Ceramic figures were imported from Italy for the caves Nativity scene and after Rodriquez death, other local artists were commissioned to complete the project with paintings and other sculptures. Marie Craigs brilliantly detailed Jesus in the Temple and David Days more modern The Raising of Jairus Daughter and Zaccheus Up a Tree are some of the featured works.
There is also a painting of The Good Samaritan by Mary Rembrandt at the entrance and a plaque of Christ and the Children by Miriam Dalstrom. These impressive works are quite startling. The crystals produce an ethereal glow on the figures, while skylights introduce a prism of colors reflecting on the shadowy walls. Rodriquez vision has become one of the most famous shrines in the world and its natural setting is not only one of the most beautiful memorials but a puzzle for engineers as well.
Although the grotto is the most fascinating point of interest in Memorial Park, it is hardly the only one. If you can get over the fact that youre in a cemetery, you can enjoy some of the best attractions in this part of the country.
Several more of Rodriquez works surround the shrine and represent other biblical events. At the entrance to the cave is the massive fifteen foot by nine feet wide Abrahams Oak. Fashioned from concrete, the tree represents the entrance to the Cave of Machpelah, the burial site chosen by Abraham after Sarah died.
It was important to the cemeterys theme because it was the first burial place mentioned in the Bible, Genesis 23. It looms over a pool, Rodriquez recreation of the Pool of Hebron, originally built by King Solomon as a water reservoir for his people. Behind the cave are a series of paths leading to a garden dedicated to Annie Laurie, a Scottish woman who in the eighteenth century was known for her religious fervor. According to legend, she prayed at an altar made of stones, which later were used to make a chair.
The chair, recreated in her memorial garden, is said to be blessed by fairies, so that anyone who sits in it can make a wish and have it come true. Across the way, lies Ponce de Leons Fountain of Youth, created to inspire hope for immortality, another fitting image in Hinds and Rodriquez vision of the burial park.
A short walk from these works, is the Memphis Memorial, a 3000 crypt mausoleum that was built much later in 1974. It was constructed inside another natural hillside and contains a gorgeous oak-paneled rotunda used as a chapel, as well as rich tapestries made by former Memphis College of Arts professor, Henry Easterwood. The tapestries represent the four basic elements, Earth, Wind, Fire, and Water and continue the theme of Gods creation and will.
As you walk through the park, you will come across several gardens that stretch for miles and bloom all year long. During the summer, roses are the featured flowers and are an impressive sight of their own.
Like I said, I know its a little strange to spend your day strolling around a cemetery, but I assure you, it is a fantastic way to take advantage of the natural terrain and history of Memphis.
Who knew such marvelous sights were literally right in the middle of town? Memorial Park is open everyday from 8:00 to dusk, but the Crystal Grotto closes at 4:00. Next time youre driving down Poplar screaming at the car in front of you, take time out to visit the park. I promise it will be good for your soul and your sanity.