Elvis Presley: Funeral in Memphis

Mourning the King

Elvis Presley death in memory sign in Memphis, Tennessee on August 18th, 1977. Credit: Alain Le Garsmeur/Getty

HE BECAME EVEN MORE OF A MYSTERY in death than he had been in life. Elvis Aron Presley went to his grave at age 42 without ever laying all his cards on the table. And all of his family — the distinction between blood relatives and employees long ago having become blurred — continued, in the midst of their sorrow, to keep their cards close to their chests.

The day before he was to go on tour, the week that the controversial book Elvis What Happened?, which purported to detail his private life, appeared the month that he again had a record on the charts, Elvis dropped dead in his Graceland mansion and instantly passed from elusive legend to myth. The city of Memphis, which also gave the world Holiday Inns, once again — if only for 48 hours or so — became the spiritual headquarters of rock & roll.

The city came to resemble a gypsy camp as tens of thousands of followers dropped whatever they were doing wherever they were and made their way to where they knew they had to be. No matter that there was no room in the inn (the city's 9000 motel rooms were already overflowing with 16,000 conventioning Shriners), no matter that only a couple of thousand out of 75,000 got to view the regal body lying in state, no matter that only 200 or so close friends attended the services. It was enough, they said, to be in the same town with the King when he was laid away.

Even in the middle of the almost hysterical adulation, though, persisted the nagging reports and speculations and rumors about the cause of death. The tentative ruling was heart failure, but the autopsy was expected to continue for at least a week.

Elvis' last week alive was apparently a happy one. His nine-year-old daughter, Lisa Marie (after whom he named his private Convair 880 jet), was visiting Graceland for two weeks. She lives in Los Angeles with her mother, Elvis' former wife, Priscilla Beaulieu. On August 7th, Elvis had rented Libertyland, a local amusement park, from midnight till dawn. His daughter and his companion, a local woman named Ginger Alden, and about 15 friends spent the night riding Casey's Cannonball. the Little Dipper, the Fender Bender and the parks' 11 other rides.

Otherwise, said friends, Elvis was swimming daily in the pool at Graceland, playing racquet ball nightly and going over the music for his 11-day tour, which was to culminate with two shows at the Mid-South Coliseum in Memphis August 27th and 28th. He was, friends said, extremely overweight and though he had seen Elvis What Happened?, written by three of his former bodyguards, he did not seem overly bothered by anything. On Monday, August 15th, Elvis arose late, as was his custom. (The Memphis Commercial Appeal's editorial on his passing noted that "if he kept late hours, he also kept the peace.") After nightfall, he took one of his Stutz-Bearcats out for a drive through Memphis. After returning to Graceland he went to his racquet ball court and played until about six a.m. Tuesday, August 16th.

At 2:33 p.m. the call came to the Memphis Fire Department's Engine House No. 29 at 2147 Elvis Presley Boulevard. The call, from Elvis' road manager Joe Esposito. said that someone was having trouble breathing at Graceland. That is not an unusual complaint, since fans often faint outside the Presley mansion. Charlie Crosby and Ulysses S. Jones Jr. jumped into Unit No. 6, a "Modular Rev Ambulance" — an orange and white boxlike structure affixed to a GMC chassis — turned on the siren and headed south. At 3746 Elvis Presley Boulevard (no one here calls it just Presley or just Elvis) the ambulance was led up the winding driveway of Graceland by a waiting car.

Crosby and Jones were brought upstairs, where Presley was lying on the floor of his bathroom. His personal doctor, George Nichopoulos, was administering cardiopulmonary resuscitation.

They put Elvis, in his blue pajamas, into Unit No. 6 and sped north on Elvis Presley Boulevard. Crosby was driving and Jones was helping with revival attempts in the back. A number of Elvis' employees followed. They turned left on Union and raced to Baptist Memorial Hospital's emergency room entrance, just four-tenths of a mile east of the original Sun Records studio at 706 Union — now a vacant and padlocked yellow, one-story building — where Elvis first recorded. "Breathe, Presley, breathe!" the Commercial Appeal quoted his doctor as saying on the way to the hospital. It was more than too late. Presley's body was already blue.

Even so, at 2:56 p.m. he was rushed into the emergency room, which was then closed to all other cases. A "Harvey Team," which is trained in all means of reviving a dying person, worked on him without success. Dr. Nichopoulos finally pronounced Elvis Presley dead at 3:30 p.m.

His body, which was becoming bloated, was moved to the hospital morgue on the second floor. The morgue was sealed off by tight security and the preliminary autopsy began, with every important doctor in the hospital present. Also called in was Dr. Jerry Francisco, the Shelby County medical examiner. Their preliminary ruling was cardiac arrhythmia and hardening of the arteries.

"Elvis had the arteries of an 80-year-old man," a Baptist Hospital employee said. "His body was just worn out. His arteries and veins were terribly corroded.

"He had been hospitalized here on five occasions," the employee said. "Usually, he would go home to Graceland first. But the last time, in April, they flew him directly here from Louisiana. Every time, the security got tighter. This time, when he was dead, it was tight.

"An autopsy usually takes 24 hours. Usually, any vital organs that are removed for study are returned and put into a bag and dropped into the coffin before burial. But not in Elvis' case. His brain, his heart, his liver, his kidneys and all the rest have been kept out for tests here." (Maurice Elliott, Baptist Hospital's vice-president, said, "All organs were removed, and that is not unusual." Elliott added that "we don't have a definite cause of death yet, and as the coroner. Dr. [Jerry] Francisco said, we may never know the exact cause of death. Since Dr. Francisco ruled death by natural causes, it then became a private case. So, all autopsy findings will be referred to the family and then any public announcement of the results will be up to the family.")

"He was hospitalized here from April 1st to 6th of this year, after cutting short a tour. And Elvis was here for two weeks in January and February of '75, for two weeks in August and September of '75, for two weeks in October of '73," the hospital employee said. "They were treating him for everything — hypertension, enlarged colon, gastroenteritis, stomach inflammation. He was getting cortisone treatments, and I heard that was for arthritis, but one doctor said Elvis might have had systemic lupus erythematosus. Lupus is an extremely rare, chronic inflammation of the nervous system, kidneys and skin. It is treated with cortisone. He also had a severe liver condition. Cortisone might have explained his weight — he was a big man; he was weighing at least 230 pounds."

Doctors at Baptist Memorial discounted the lupus theory and said final autopsy results may not be known for weeks. Elvis' body was removed by hearse from Baptist Memorial at 8:10 p.m. and taken up Union to the Memphis Funeral Home for embalming. The next morning he was taken to the foyer of Graceland to lie in state.

Almost immediately after his death was announced at four p.m. on Tuesday, mourners began gathering outside Graceland, a surprisingly modest, 18-room former church that Elvis bought for his mother in 1957.

TO REACH GRACELAND YOU HEAD south on Elvis Presley Boulevard, that portion of Bellevue which was renamed after Memphis' favorite son in 1972. and pass through a steadily deteriorating neighborhood past Forest Hill Cemetery Midtown where his mother, Gladys Smith Presley, was buried in 1958, also at the age of 42, past Denny's Restaurant, past an open field of 11 acres that Elvis owns, and there, at 3746, is a low, rock fence with a jagged top, a white iron gate and a red brick gatehouse to guard Elvis' privacy.

Elvis' father, Vernon, had decided to let the mourners file past the open casket in Graceland from three to five p.m. on Wednesday, and the crush of humanity out on Elvis Presley Boulevard had become fearsome. Literally miles of mourners stretched in both directions, waiting for a last glimpse. It was as comprehensive a cross section of America as one could ever wish to see: bikers, businessmen, children, Shriners in clown shirts and phalanxes of middle-aged women, many of them sobbing."

The grounds of Graceland Christian Church, which is Elvis' neighbor on the north (on the south is the podiatry clinic), were soon littered with soft-drink cans and film wrappers. The church's trees were snapping under the weight of people trying to see beyond the rock fence. And the shopping center across the street from Graceland quickly overflowed with cars and people and souvenir vendors. A woman leaned against the signpost for "Mr. Tax of America" and openly sobbed as she listened to "Love Me Tender" coming from a nearby car radio.

Inside the grounds, once you got past the press compound and the roped off medical area, the pastoral quiet was stunning. At the top of the circular sloping driveway there were more flowers than one could count: dozens of floral guitars and hound dogs and hearts. Eventually, a hundred vans delivered 3166 floral arrangements sent by everyone from the Soviet Union to Elton John to the Memphis Police Department.

Graceland is an understated, two-story white brick colonial building. Two massive, white stone lions flank the doorway. Behind them Air National Guardsmen stood at stiff attention. Just inside the foyer, Elvis was laid out in a 900-pound copper-lined coffin underneath a crystal chandelier. White linen was spread on the floor and grim, silent bodyguards were fanned out around the room. Elvis was dressed in a pure white suit, light blue shirt and white tie. The face was riveting: terribly pale and puffy but still handsome. The woman just in front of me in line, when she saw that face, sagged visibly as though she has just taken a bullet. Her sobs were the only sounds in the room.

In the midst of the plainness and glory of death, kids were skateboarding right beside a crying girl who was clutching at least 25 copies of the Press-Scimitar, with its headline: A LONELY LIFE ENDS ON ELVIS PRESLEY BOULEVARD. Other kids were scouting the parking lot with shopping bags, looking for returnable soft-drink bottles.

At five p.m. a gentle rain began but no one was about to leave. The gates were to close then, but the police had to deal with about 10,000 people. Finally the order came from "the family": the gates would be shut at 6:30. They were. It seemed touch-and-go for a while — an awesome crowd surged at the gates amid boos and tears and sobs. Eventually, the crowd gave up. The rock wall facing on Elvis Presley Boulevard is low enough to jump over but no one tried.

The last people in line were Mike and Cheryl Smelser, of Memphis. How did it feel to be last in line? "Right now it does not feel all that good," said Mike.

THE CROWDS OUTSIDE GRACELAND did not let up. In the early morning hours of Thursday, August 18th, the first two Elvis Presley-related fatalities occurred. At four a.m., Alice Hovatar and Juanita Johnson, both from Monroe, Louisiana, and Tammy Baiter of St. Clair, Missouri, went out to the median strip of Elvis Presley Boulevard to talk to Officer W. C. Greenwood. Alice said to him, "I can't believe he's dead." Then, according to witnesses, a 1963 white Ford driven by a man identified as Treatise Wheeler, 18, headed south slowly and did a sudden U-turn in the shopping center parking lot in front of the Hickory Log. Tires smoking, the Ford headed north, straight for the median strip, at 50 mph. Officer Greenwood threw his flashlight at the windshield but it was too late.

The car hit the three girls and tossed them like match-sticks. Johnson and Hovatar, their bodies mangled beyond recognition, died instantly. Baiter remains in critical condition. Officers immediately arrested Wheeler.

Wheeler appeared in court on Friday and, after his mother said that he had mental problems, was held without bail.

About the same time, 1700 copies of the Commercial-Appeal were stolen and were being hawked at prices ranging up to five dollars.

The private funeral on Thursday was plain and simple. Pallbearers were longtime friends Lamar Fike, George Klein and Joe Esposito, guitarist Charlie Hodge, cousins Billy and Gene Smith, Beach Boys road manager Jerry Schilling, personal physician Dr. George Nichopoulos and record producer Felton Jarvis. About 200 persons crowded into and out of Elvis' music room at Graceland at two p.m. to hear remarks by Rex Humbard, the TV evangelist from Akron, Ohio; comedian Jack Kahane, who had opened shows for Elvis; and the Reverend C.W. Bradley, pastor of Memphis' Wooddale Church of Christ. Bradley gave the main eulogy.

Then the caravan, led by a silver Cadillac followed by the white Cadillac hearse with Elvis' body and 17 white Cadillac limousines, toiled its way past bystanders the two and a half miles to Forest Hill Cemetery Midtown.

A short ceremony followed in the white marble mausoleum where Elvis was entombed at 4:24 p.m. in a six-crypt family chamber. Elvis' manager, Colonel Tom Parker, sat outside on a police motorcycle for a while. Elvis' friends said the Colonel was not letting anyone know how he felt. (There was open speculation that Colonel Parker had earlier canceled his contract with Elvis. Road manager Joe Esposito said that was ridiculous: "I called the Colonel about that. He laughed and said, 'Where do these stories start?' The Colonel's plans are the same today as if Elvis were still here. They had a written contract.")

Vernon Presley stayed with his son after everyone else left the mausoleum and emerged visibly shaken.

Family and friends returned to Graceland for a Southern supper. Vernon Presley decided to give all the flowers to fans, and at 8:25 a.m. Friday the gates to Forest Hill were opened. By 11:30 the flowers were gone.

Elvis' first producer, Sam Phillips of Sun Records fame, said he thought it was possible that Elvis died of a broken heart, since he could never find any true friends. Elvis' last producer, Felton Jarvis, said that maybe Elvis had a death wish and that it wasn't the fans who killed him, it was the people around him. A young woman named Vicki said, "Hey, all you have to do is stand on any corner here in Whitehaven and you'll find people who've been to parties at his house. High-school girls got new cars from him. He hired a guy just to play racquet ball with him — that was his only job. Elvis always had someone carry his black bag with his 'credentials': that was all his police badges."

After the funeral, after it was all over, the crowds continued to grow outside Graceland. One caravan of six cars arrived late Thursday. Wanda Magyor, 33, of Latrobe, Pennsylvania, jiggled a baby on her hip as she told of her love for Elvis. "We'll stay out here all night just to get into the cemetery. We drove all night to get here. I will get a flower from the cemetery."

One of her companions, Myrtle Smith said, "Thirty of us decided to come down here because there'll never be another one like him. He was the king of everyone and especially of our people. He was the king of the gypsies. He was ours."