Shrine of the Ages and the Pioneer Cemetery

Shrine of the Ages

Beginning with the idea for an interfaith chapel at Grand Canyon as early as 1917, it wasn’t until 1952 that Shrine of the Ages Chapel Corporation was formed, plans were drawn up, and fundraising started.

A choir wearing robes on either side of a stone altar and wooden cross. The Grand Canyon landscape is behind the choir.
April 5, 1950, Arizona State College choir singing at 16th annual Easter Sunrise Service.

The corporation was composed of representatives from Catholic, Jewish, and Protestant services, and was approved by the National Park Service because it offered the opportunity for all religious faiths to have a place of worship. The idea was to build a permanent building near a site on the canyon rim already used for services, including a very popular Easter Sunrise service.

Harold E. Wagoner, a member of the board of directors of the Church Architectural Guild of America, was selected as architect. Working within park service guidelines to respect the natural environment and Native American culture, he designed a structure that reflected the architectural style of a kiva, a place of worship used by Native Americans in the Southwest.

Artist's drawing of original design for chapel, a circular structure of three stories with windows spanning 180 degrees of the circumference, with a stone wall on the other half. A single-story wing is located behind the chapel.
Architect Harold E. Wagoner's vision for the Shrine of the Ages.

Because the initial building site was on the rim of the canyon just west of today’s Hermits Rest Route shuttle stop, plans called for the main auditorium to have a sweeping canyon view from a multi-story, curved window placed behind the altar.

A special hydraulic lift would raise and lower at least three different altar configurations for Jewish, Catholic, and Protestant services. An organ placed on a small balcony, with wind chests and pipes located at different sections of the main chapel, would provide stereophonic sound effects.

Even as fund-raising efforts reached around the world, questions about whether the rim was an appropriate location for the structure resulted in delays. Some even argued that the building only remotely resembled a kiva, instead looking more like a huge spacecraft perched on the canyon rim.

Donations were never quite enough to realize Wagoner’s plans, so federal funding became involved. The building was ultimately redesigned and relocated away from the edge of the canyon. An appropriate site was chosen next to the existing Grand Canyon Pioneer Cemetery, and the Shrine of the Ages was completed by 1970.


Grand Canyon Pioneer Cemetery

First used before the establishment of the national park but not formally dedicated until 1928, the cemetery serves as a resting place for many early Grand Canyon families and pioneers. The cemetery—part of the Grand Canyon Village National Historic District—has more than 390 individual graves, several of which date back to before the establishment of the park and the dedication of the cemetery.

CCC surveying and staking grave plots in the pioneer cemetery.
CCC members surveying and staking grave plots in the Pioneer Cemetery. CIRCA 1937.

In January 1919, John Hance would become one of the first residents to be buried in what would be late known at the Grand Canyon Pioneer Cemetery. The location of the cemetery would fit a common pattern among young communities in the American West, placing the cemetery a mile or so outside the Historic Village. The American Legion Post dedicated the cemetery on May 30, 1928. The current design of the cemetery, however, was not established until 1938 when the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) surveyed the grounds and put in reference markers and gravel paths.

People interred at the cemetery include Grand Canyon pioneers, war veterans, tribal members, and employees of the concessionaires, US Forest Service, and National Park Service. The cemetery, grave markers, and gateway arch are included on the List of Classified Historic Structures in Grand Canyon National Park.

Black and white photo of the pioneer cemetery gate.

After nearly 100 years since its opening, Grand Canyon Pioneer Cemetery offically closed to new burials in 2017 due to lack of space. Although the cemetery is closed to new plots, some burials may continue for individuals with a spouse or immediate family already interred in the cemetery.

Originally, to qualify for burial, an individual must have lived at Grand Canyon for no less than three years or must have made a significant and substantial contribution to the development of, public knowledge about, understanding of or appreciation for Grand Canyon National Park.

A black and white photo a the pioneer cemetery gate.
Grand Canyon Pioneer Cemetery

Learn more about Grand Canyon Pioneer Cemetery on Arizona State University's Nature, Culture, and History at Grand Canyon website.

John Verkamp in front of his tent.

After the Santa Fe Railroad started bringing visitors to the canyon, entrepreneurs came to the canyon to make their fortune.

A black and white photo of two men installing a telephone pole.
Civilian Conservation Corps

Company 819 arrived on May 29, 1933 and continued on the South Rim until the end of the program in July, 1942.

Prehistoric granaries along the Colorado River.
Associated Tribes

Eleven contemporary tribes have cultural links to the area and call Grand Canyon home.

A cemetery gate.

Passing through or calling the canyon home, many people have influenced the development and protection of Grand Canyon.

Last updated: September 22, 2019

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Grand Canyon, AZ 86023



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