Chris Przybyszewski 0000-00-00 00:00:00
In America, the concept of a cemetery hasn’t been around that long. While human burial practices span millennia, our country didn’t set aside its first tract of land specifically for burying the dead until 1796 when the New Burial Ground of New Haven, CT, was officially incorporated. According to Meg Greene in Rest in Peace: A History of American Cemeteries, we didn’t even use the word “cemetery” until 1832, with the christening of Mount Auburn outside of Boston. At the time, Greene writes, Mount Auburn presented a new idea to visitors of using the cemetery as a place to go to enjoy parklike surroundings. The idea and design were soon replicated in cemeteries throughout the country, which quickly became gathering grounds for families to enjoy Sunday picnics together. Still, cemeteries remained “plain.” There were no gardens or meeting spaces, just rows of nonconforming headstones often placed scattershot across the ground, which was frequently overgrown and not so pleasant to behold. Such things changed in the early 1900s with the development of Forest Lawn Cemetery in Glendale, CA, under the direction of Hubert Eaton. Eaton created what became known as a “memorial park,” combining the idea of a public-park space with the functionality of a cemetery. In Eaton’s vision, he saw an outdoor space that emphasized the natural beauty of the land and included hills and manicured gardens. As well, Eaton installed multiple works of art, including outdoor sculptures This cemetery history takes a Memphis turn when E. Clovis Hinds of Tupelo, MS, visited Eaton and Forest Lawn Cemetery in 1924. Hinds, an entrepreneur and savvy businessman, made his fortune from cotton trading and, appropriately, the life insurance business. As an insurance agent, surely Hinds would have seen firsthand the impact death made on grieving loved ones, and he combined this insight with an opportunity to re-create Eaton’s success in the Midsouth. In August of that same year, at age 56, Hinds purchased a 54-acre parcel of land at the corner of Yates and Poplar, then considered the outskirts of Memphis. He went on to develop one of Memphis’s most unique destinations, Memorial Park Funeral Home and Cemetery. Until his death in 1949, Hinds focused his attention on the park, creating what he felt to be a peaceful sanctuary for the deceased and living, alike. Part of his plan included cultivating the natural landscape. Pulling Arkansas fieldstone from its quarry, Hinds covered the park with natural rock formations and water attractions, including a curved reflecting pool and threetier fountain. Hinds also took seriously Eaton’s concept of making art a central concern. In 1935, Hinds commissioned Mexican artist Dionicio Rodriguez to sculpt a number of projects whose subject matter spanned multiple historic periods and folklore with an emphasis on biblical stories. Justin Matthews introduced Hinds to Rodriguez, who had recently sculpted pieces for Matthews in three Little Rock parks. “He will need a tent and a little coal oil stove and various acids and stains that he will tell through his interpreter,” Matthews wrote to Hinds, preparing him for working with the unusual artist. “He will also need copper wire and steel; he will tell you how much.” Rodriguez spoke no English, and he did work through an interpreter to tell Hinds of his simple needs. Working for $75 a week, Rodriguez required only building materials and a tent in which he could work. (He was notoriously secretive about his techniques and wanted to hide his work from public eyes.) From there, Hinds put enormous trust in Rodriguez, who created without sketches, notes, or much other input from Hinds. The language barrier continued to be a challenge for both men. But the results did not (and, to this day, do not) allow argument. Rodriguez’s ability to sculpt concrete into natural forms was uncanny and unprecedented. Over the next eight years, Hinds would watch the artist spin out creation after creation. “Rodriguez would first create a support structure of steel and copper tubing,” explains Summer Edgington, assistant office manager, webmaster, and onsite historian for Memorial Park. “He never welded, but wired these pieces together for strength. Over this, he would shape a rough form out of wire mesh, filled with rubble. Then, with one sack of cement at a time, adding no sand, he applied this wet cement to the form, shaping and carving it with his hands, twigs, or kitchen utensils such as forks, spoons, and knives.” The sculpture took shape as Rodriguez added layer upon layer of cement. “While the cement was still wet, he added stains and dyes he mixed to give it color,” says Edgington. “Hinds bought some of the chemicals for him, such as copperas, sulfuric acid, muriatic acid, iron oxide, saltpeter, and lampblack.” Hinds’s influence is evident in the pair’s greatest creation, the Crystal Shrine Grotto, begun in 1937. Hinds envisioned a cave-like structure surrounded by towers of red rock like those he had seen in Colorado’s Garden of the Gods. He bought five tons of crystals from Diamond Cave near Harrison, AR, and placed the expensive materials into the hands of Rodriguez. The artist, who had been on sabbatical in his native Mexico, had become inspired himself while visiting the Grutas de Cacahuamilpa caves, just outside of Taxco, Mexico. Rodriguez brought his memories and inspiration from that place and began to work. “Rodriguez supervised the excavation of the grotto, some 60 feet deep into the hillside,” says Edgington. “He coated the cave walls with cement, made to look like stone. He made stalactites that clung to the ceiling and studded The ceiling and walls with the quartz crystal that Hinds purchased. The cave’s interior sparkled and shimmered like diamonds.” Hinds called it the only manmade crystal cave in the world. As well, Rodriguez installed, painted, and sculpted scenes (partly chosen by Hinds) of different biblical stories. To complement this work, Hinds imported Renaissance-style ceramic figures from Italy. Memphian Marie Craig also contributed to the sculptures. Sadly, although Rodriguez finished his work in the late 1930s, poor health kept him from ever returning to the park to see the vision completed. Hinds died in 1949. While Rodriguez’s work is visited by more than 2,000 tourists a year and is carefully preserved daily by Memorial Park staff, Hinds’s vision endured to become a family legacy. He was succeeded first by daughter Bess Hinds Anderson and son Stanley, and then by granddaughter Katherine Hinds Smythe. She and the family sold the park in 1997, and NorthStar Memorial Group owns the park today. Since its opening, Memorial Park Funeral Home and Cemetery, designated a National Historic Cemetery, has grown to almost 150 acres (16 acres still undeveloped), with new gardens, new sections, and new meeting places. With 106,000 plotted grave spaces and 65,000 burials, Memorial Park is the largest combination of park and cemetery in Tennessee. Memorial Park Funeral Home and Cemetery, 5668 Poplar, 767-8930, memorialparkfuneralandcemetery. Com.
Published by Downtowner Magazine. View All Articles.
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