After my visit to LA I traveled on to Arizona to visit one of America’s most popular national parks: the Grand Canyon. On the south rim of the canyon, hidden beneath the pines, lies Grand Canyon Pioneer Cemetery, together with the Shrine of the Ages. Let’s explore this special graveyard and see what it can tell us about the history of the park.
Shrine of the Ages is actually the name of the chapel that was completed in 1970, designed by architect Harold E. Wagoner. The building was closed during my visit, but functioned as an interfaith chapel, intended for all religious faiths to have a place of worship. It also housed numerous events, weddings, rangers programs and other special activities.
The entrance to the Grand Canyon Pioneer Cemetery itself is right across from the Shrine of the Ages. Although the first burial took place in 1919, the cemetery was officially founded on Memorial Day, 1928. The cemetery has around 400 graves of people who were connected to the Grand Canyon, from park rangers and guides to scientists and war veterans.
John Hance was the first white settler of the Grand Canyon and also the first to be buried here. He was a pioneer, trail builder, tour guide and a skilled hunter. For many pioneer men back then, hunting was essential as they lived so remote. He lived in a small simple cabin he had built himself on the canyon rim.
In order to be buried here, an individual must have lived at Grand Canyon for at least three years or must have made a significant contribution to the development of, public knowledge about, understanding of or appreciation for Grand Canyon National Park.
However, in 2017, almost 100 years after its opening, the cemetery closed to new burials due to lack of space. The only burials that will continue are for people whose spouse is already interred in the cemetery, or those who have reserved a spot for some other significant reason.
There’s a special section for war veterans, where family members and the America Legion still leave flags during memorial services.
Visitors of the cemetery often leave small pebbles or pine cones at the graves as a token of remembrance. The combination of the older and more modern stone headstones together with the natural elements like the pine needles and cones that cover the ground, give the cemetery a soothing, genuine atmosphere and make it fit in with the rest of the national park in perfect harmony.
My favorite graves are the two below here: one which only refers to “M.R.S” and one with a tiny little headstone in field of grass and twigs. The simplicity of these graves touches me. And it is fitting: almost everybody interred here was connected to the Grand Canyon and loved this majestic miracle of the earth.
To eventually be buried in that same landscape must have brought utter peace and joy to their souls – something the most gigantic over the top grave monument would not even be able to compete with.
Although the overall atmosphere was very tranquil, there was one grave that felt a bit eerie to me. Its metal structure reminded me of a child’s bed, and it turned out to be the grave of a thirteen year old girl.
Another sad story: on June 30th, 1956, an two airplanes crashed into each other right above the Grand Canyon. This mid-air collision cost the lives of all passengers and crew members aboard both planes, 128 in total. Because of the severe impact of the crash, the bodies could not be identified.
Although most victims of this accident are buried in Flagstaff, Grand Canyon Pioneer Cemetery erected this memorial to honor them, and buried 29 unidentified victims here. I didn’t take a photo myself but found this one from back in 1956, when it was just installed.
One memorial I did shoot is this one for the Native American Havasupai tribe. They have lived in the Grand Canyon for at least 800 years and still reside in part of it today, attracting thousands of visitors annually to the stunning waterfalls at the Havasupai Indian Reservation.
I was told that every year some people die at the Grand Canyon: by accident, due to suicide, or even murder – if you walk close to the edge of the canyon you will understand how difficult it must be to figure out how exactly someone ended up falling down. I expected to find a couple headstones of tourists here as well, but as I learned the strict burial requirements, I figure these people were buried in their hometown.
But for those who did find their final resting place here underneath the pine trees, it seems they definitely found their well deserved peace.
Grand Canyon Pioneer Cemetery is an incredibly beautiful cemetery, not just because of its extraordinary location, but also because it continues to be well maintained and honored by the park staff. Make sure that when you visit the Grand Canyon, you look for the sign that points you to the Shrine of the Ages to visit this little sanctuary, hidden in one of the seven natural wonders of the world.