Cemeteries draw visitors for all sorts of reasons. Many come, of course, to pay their respects to family members and friends buried or entombed there. Others admire the lovely monuments and memorials, especially in older burial places here like Elmwood, Calvary, or Forest Hill.
But not many cemeteries offer a unique attraction that was designed and created by one of this country’s most talented — and most mysterious — folk artists. Indeed, Memphis Memorial Park’s Crystal Shrine Grotto should be on any visitor’s bucket list of places to visit here. There’s nothing quite like it.
Born outside Mexico City in 1890, Dionicio Rodriguez came to this country in the early 1920s. Since he spoke little English, and always wandered from place to place, details of his early life are frustratingly vague. One historian described him as “a descendant of the artistic Aztec race of Mexico,” but it’s hard to say if that’s entirely true. What is known, however, is that somewhere and somehow he perfected a technique for chemically tinting concrete and then carving or molding it into naturalistic forms that closely resembled stones, logs, tree branches — whatever he wished — down to such details as artificial worm holes, cracks in the wood, and peeling bark.
It’s hard to say how well Rodriguez was received in his own lifetime, as he traveled around the country creating projects for various clients. In recent years, however, surviving examples of his amazing work have been documented and preserved wherever possible, and good examples can be found across the South. In Little Rock there’s a beautiful park with bridges and an old water mill — all formed of tinted concrete — that is so realistic it was later used in the opening scenes of Gone with the Wind.
Luckily for Memphis, Rodriguez met up with another remarkable fellow, E. Clovis Hinds, who in 1924 had purchased some 160 acres of land on the outskirts of our city and transformed it into a tranquil graveyard he would call Memorial Park. A cemetery brochure describes his dream: “He sought not merely a pleasant, peaceful place of repose but an atmosphere steeped in tradition, linking the ancient past with the eternal future.”
Rodriguez came here in 1925 and under Clovis’ guidance began the construction of what many would consider his masterpiece — the Crystal Shrine Grotto. Words and pictures don’t really do it justice; only a personal visit shows the full scope of this endeavor. Using tons of tinted concrete, Rodriguez recreated scenes from the Bible and ancient literature. The Cave of Machpelah overlooks the scenic Pool of Hebron. Nearby are Abraham’s Oak, the Ferdinand IV Sunken Garden, Annie’s Wishing Chair, the Fountain of Youth, and other works — all made of cement.
Perhaps the most unusual feature is the Grotto itself, a large manmade cavern carved into a hillside, with the high ceiling studded with thousands of quartz crystals. Inside, visitors can stroll past 10 panels depicting scenes from the life of Christ, which have been enhanced in more recent years by wood figures sculpted by Memphis artist David Day.
How did he carve out this grotto, or form these remarkable things, entirely alone? No one today is quite sure. Few photographs exist showing Rodriguez at work, because he was so secretive about his techniques that he often shrouded his projects in canvas until they were finished. After working at Memorial Park for several years, he left for other projects in other cities. He died in 1955 and is buried in San Antonio, but his remarkable creations live on.
That’s because Dionicio Rodriguez took the time to make sure they were built to last. A marker at the Grotto explains that his artwork was “reinforced with steel and copper bar so as to ensure its existence for many centuries to come.” It still looks as impressive today as when he first unveiled it some 90 years ago.