Crystal Shrine Grotto.
View from the entrance to Crystal Shrine Grotto. Real caves do not look like this.

Crystal Shrine Grotto

Field review by the editors.

Memphis, Tennessee

An artist who can't speak English, a 22-year-old just out of college, and an insurance company president walk into a graveyard....

Artist Dionicio Rodriguez
Dionicio Rodriguez and his walk-thru Abraham's Oak.

It sounds like the opening line of a bad joke, but it's actually how Crystal Shrine Grotto got built.

The Grotto was the idea of Elliot Clovis Hinds, who sold his life insurance company to build Memorial Park Cemetery in Memphis. Hinds thought his graveyard should be filled with inspiring art, not tombstones -- a Memphis version of Forest Lawn Cemetery in Los Angeles. Specifically, he wanted a man-made cave, encrusted with real rock crystals, that would tell the story of Jesus.

Dionicio Rodriguez was hired to figure out how to build it. Rodriguez spoke no English and was obsessively secret about his art techniques. He was already an accomplished master of el trabajo rustico (rustic work) and faux bois (false wood) -- which, on the face of it, don't sound like the skills needed to craft a fake cave. But Rodriguez threw himself into the project, spending parts of the next six years digging a 60-foot deep cavern, lining it with sculpted cement and five tons of quartz crystal, and designing ten niches and artistic backgrounds for Gospel-story statues (The stories were chosen by Hinds).

Zacchaeus up a Tree.
The tree of Zacchaeus, aglow with Grotto juju.

Rodriguez was also able to add his own flair to the project, such as making the entrance to the cave through what looks like a 40-foot-tall termite mound (Or possibly a giant cypress knee). The cement stump trash containers spread around the cemetery were his work, too.

Rodriguez was not a people-sculptor, and when he left the project in 1941 most of its Gospel niches still lacked statuary. They stayed that way for decades. That's when David Day came along, 22 years old, with a masters degree in figurative art. Working in limestone and wood, Day gave Crystal Shrine Grotto its final veneer of weirdness, with modernist sculptures such as an eerie, glowing "Zacchaeus up a Tree," and a space alien Transfiguration Jesus that seems inspired by the Braxton County Monster.

Crystal Shrine Grotto.
Transfiguration Jesus has a plexiglass face filled with limestone sand.

Day added his final artwork in 1981, completing the project 46 years after Rodriguez began it.

Crystal Shrine Grotto, according to the cemetery, attracts over 100,000 visitors a year. Rodriguez's satellite creations, just outside the cave -- the Tomb of Machpelah, the Pool of Hebron, and a walk-thru Abraham's Oak -- are frequent photo spots for high school seniors, quinceaneras, and wedding parties that don't mind posing in a graveyard.

The cave itself provides a cool escape from the summer sun. Essentially it's art inside someone else's art, surrounding Day's strange abstractions (and some traditional Christian statuary) with Rodriguez's secretly-modified cement, enhanced by plinky prerecorded harp music and garishly colored Italian horror movie lighting. Regardless of religious beliefs, everyone enjoys the Grotto for its quirky novelty. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1991.

Crystal Shrine Grotto.

Although Crystal Shrine Grotto was originally conceived by Hinds as a way to make visitors to his cemetery feel better about death, it has clearly become more than that. Hinds and Rodriguez were dead themselves long before it attained its current fame -- and even before David Day arrived -- so we'll never really know if they'd be pleased with how it turned out.

Crystal Shrine Grotto

Memorial Park Cemetery

Address:
5668 Poplar Ave., Memphis, TN
Directions:
East edge of the city. I-240 exit 15B. Drive west a quarter-mile on US Hwy 72/Poplar Ave. Turn right at the blinker light into the cemetery. Once inside the gate make an immediate right, then bear left, then turn left. You'll soon see the Grotto on the left. Park along the right side of the road.
Hours:
Daily. Cemetery opens at 7. Cave opens at 8.
RA Rates:
Worth a Detour
Save to My Sights

Nearby Offbeat Places

Isaac Hayes GraveIsaac Hayes Grave, Memphis, TN - < 1 mi.
Cancer Survivors PlazaCancer Survivors Plaza, Memphis, TN - 2 mi.
Elvis's First Home In MemphisElvis's First Home In Memphis, Memphis, TN - 3 mi.
In the region:
High School Viking Giant, Memphis, TN - 9 mi.

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