Are you making plans to explore Memphis? Would you be surprised if we added a cemetery to your list of must-see places? You’ll understand once you experience the Crystal Shrine Grotto yourself! Located inside Memorial Park Funeral Home and Cemetery, the Crystal Shrine Grotto is known as the world’s only man-made crystal cave. Nestled into the beautifully manicured landscape, with ponds, garden walks, and art installations, this unique but beautiful spot is free and open to visitors daily.
Located close to the I-240 split at Poplar Avenue in East Memphis, Memorial Park is easy to access from almost any part of the city or surrounding areas. Still beautifully preserved, the property was originally purchased by E. Clovis Hinds in 1925. He was passionate about nurturing the park into more than an eerie tombstone-dotted cemetery. He dreamt instead of a memorial park with beautiful sweeping hills, groves of trees, and artistic installations where the bereaved could find solace and beauty after their loved one’s passing.
Today, thanks to Hinds’ partnership with the artist and craftsman Dionicio Rodriguez, the park offers a beautiful hideaway for anyone looking for peace, inspiration, reflection, and natural beauty. Guests are welcome into the cemetery anytime during open hours, from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. It’s common to find people meditating, strolling, or taking photos along the paths outside the Grotto.
The Grotto itself is a place of artistic and spiritual significance, especially for those of the Christian tradition. When you enter the cave, you will find the walls and ceiling of the cave encrusted with authentic crystals and man-made stalactites and stalagmites. You will also find artistic renderings and statues depicting the story of Jesus’ life and death along the coves of the inner walls. While the imagery is explicitly Christian, the atmosphere welcomes travelers from all walks of faith and life. Inside, you can sign a guest book to document your pilgrimage to the site.
Outside of the Grotto, you’ll find manicured paths and ponds, along with other works of art that Hinds commissioned. There are also several statues, including Annie Laurie’s Wishing Chair, the Broken Tree Bench, and Abraham’s Oak. Like much of Rodriguez’s work, these were also inspired by global folklore and biblical themes.
Rodriguez’s method of building the sculptures was unique to other artists of his time. Instead of welding, he used steel and copper tubing to create a support structure for each sculpture and then wrapped it in wire mesh and filled it with stones and rubble. From there, he hand-mixed cement with paint to slowly fill out, color, and shape each sculpture. The final product gives the effect of natural elements like stone, tree bark, and sand without including any of those items in the creation process. The sculptures are large and accessible for guests to touch, sit on, and take photos with when they visit. Abraham’s Oak specifically mimics a hollowed-out tree and offers benches inside for sitting and reflecting.
Phillip Hamilton, the current director (who has worked with Memorial Park for 41 years), says that the Grotto is a point of pride. They love being able to offer such a special place for people in Memphis to experience beauty and art for free. He believes that interacting with the authentic artwork by Rodriguez is one of the things that has kept drawing people to the Grotto for nearly 90 years now. Noting that there are very few examples of Rodriguez’s work across the country, the Crystal Shrine Grotto “is just unique,” he says.
In his time at Memorial Park, Hamilton has seen visitors from around the world. This includes huge tour buses dropping off tour groups, families of bereaved visiting their lost loved ones, and locals craving a moment in a quiet, natural place. “People use it like a botanic garden,” he says and gives his thanks to the grounds crew who maintain the site and make it beautiful and accessible for guests.
Hamilton also explained another practical purpose that The Grotto serves for the community. He says that on weekends, there are often multiple wedding parties who come to be married at the site or have their bridal photos taken. It’s not uncommon to find photographers posing their subjects for quinceañera photos, engagement photos, graduation photos, and more. Because the site is entirely free for anyone to enjoy, you can never predict what you will see on your visit.
One insider tip Hamilton shares is about the fountain at the pond’s center just outside the Grotto. If you pause to look at the fountain on one side, you should be able to see depictions of people’s faces. These are apparently some of Rodriguez’s loved ones he wanted to honor through his art. Most people don’t know that the faces are there, so definitely see if you can spot them when you visit!
The size of the Crystal Shrine Grotto and surrounding art installations is not large, and you won’t need a long visit to take it all in. Plan for a 20 to 30-minute visit to Memorial Park, which serves as a perfect pause to an otherwise busy day of exploring Memphis. Feel free to take your time, breathe, and enjoy the calm of the Crystal Shrine Grotto while you are there. Depending on the day and time you visit, you may be the sole visitor or coincide with other guests coming and going.
While the Bluff City is known as a hub for live music, delicious food, and Southern culture unlike any other, it’s nice to find something a little different for residents and visitors to explore. The Crystal Shrine Grotto is the perfect location for those who want to step back and experience something you simply can’t find anywhere else in the world.
All photography by Jordan Arellano.
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