THE DEATH AND FUNERAL OF ELVIS AARON PRESLEY
August 17, 1977 – Graceland. At noon sharp the long white hearse came down Elvis Presley Boulevard, bringing Elvis home to Graceland for the last time, flanked on either side by six motorcycle policemen, their lights flashing and sirens blaring. The procession swept through the Music Gates, up the long drive, and came to a stop at the front-steps. Several of us helped the attendants carry in the nine-hundred-pound copper coffin, which was placed in the living room and opened so that the family, friends and staff could pay their respects. The lid was raised, and there he was, dressed in a white suit, a white tie and a pale-blue shirt. His face looked so serene. It was hard to believe that Elvis’ funeral would be tomorrow.
Elvis’ Grandma Minnie Mae was led in first, supported by Vernon and Aunt Delta. The moment she saw Elvis she collapsed. As we carried her back to her bedroom, she sobbed and cried out, “Oh, God! God! He was the prettiest thing I ever did see.” Repeating it over and over. Leaving her room, I recalled the painful irony of Elvis saying ten years before, “She’ll probably outlive me.”
Lisa Marie lovingly stroked her daddy’s forehead and ran her fingers through his hair. I stood close by, and every time she stepped away I remolded his hair. One by one, people approached the coffin to be with Elvis, to touch him for the last time, to gaze upon his face.
That afternoon Vernon decided the fans should be allowed in for their last opportunity to view his son. We moved the coffin into the foyer and placed it just several steps inside the front door. A massive security force, consisting of 150 uniformed officers plus a unit of Air National Guard and military sentries, maintained order as a single line of fans entered the house. I sat on the staircase and watched as people from all over the country and all over the world filed past Elvis. Their grief was palpable.
Out on the lawn lay people who had collapsed from the heat, exhaustion, hunger, thirst or grief. One woman suffered a heart attack. Inside and out, Graceland was blanketed by flowers, sent from all over the globe and arranged in all kinds of shapes: guitars, hearts, bibles, teddy bears, TCB insignias, crowns. In the oppressive heat, their sweet, heavy scent wafted through the air. Millions of cicada bugs added to the eerie atmosphere with their loud, incessant screeching.
After six, when the police shouted through their bullhorns that the gates would be closing, the crowd nearly rioted. “No! No! We want to see Elvis!” Once order was restored, the gates were closed, and we moved the coffin back to the music room, where it would remain until the funeral.
August 18, 1977 - 2 pm. So much has happened in the two days since Elvis died. Family and friends have said their good-byes; ten thousand fans have passed slowly by his open coffin, many weeping, all respectful. Tens of thousands more were turned away and waited outside in silence for the drama to play out.
As the hour of the funeral approached, people began arriving. Ann Margaret, who had flown in from California with her husband, Roger Smith, appeared badly shaken. Actor George Hamilton, a friend of Colonel Parker, came, as well as Tennessee governor Ray Blanton. Colonel Parker’s associates and RCA executives arrived, but mostly family and friends attended.
We all looked at one another incredulously when Colonel Parker made his entrance attired in a loud short-sleeved Hawaiian shirt and a baseball cap.
Linda Thompson drew some disapproving glances when she arrived wearing a lavender dress. “I don’t care what anyone thinks,” Linda remarked to me in her forthright manner. “Elvis told me a few years ago, ‘Black is worn at funerals for mourning. At my funeral I want people to dress in colors and be happy for me.’ Elvis always told me that purple and violet are the highest spiritual colors. I know this the way Elvis wants it. He always said, ‘I want to know about God, about life and life after death.’ And now he does.”
Many of the women Elvis knew came carrying spiritual books he’d given them.
Elvis’ funeral service, with over two hundred people in attendance, has been completed. The beautiful eulogy of Pastor Rex Humbard, the gospel singing of Kathy Westmoreland, wearing white because she knew that was what Elvis would want, J. D. Sumner and the Stamps Quartet, and Jake Hess, all filled the rooms and now are silent, like Elvis himself.
As the service drew to a close, Vernon rose from his seat at the very front and screamed, “Son, I’ll be with ya soon!” Grandma became almost hysterical with grief, and poor little Lisa sat crying, frightened and confused by the outbursts. Many people walked outside to wait for the cortege to assemble. Inside, several of us said our last farewells.
Now it’s just a few of us with Elvis: Vernon, several of the guys, and me.
Vernon and I embrace in front of the coffin, both sobbing. “Larry, this is the final curtain. This is the final curtain.” I can’t imagine the thoughts and feelings of the others; I only know that time has stood still for me. I’m not in the real world, but somewhere else—somewhere I’ve never been and didn’t want to be.
I barely see Joe Esposito take the diamond ring from Elvis’ finger and hand it to Vernon. I know only that the funeral director is lowering the lid of the coffin, that Elvis’ physical presence is about to leave my sight for the last time. The magnetic energy that Elvis had in life reaches out to me, drawing me closer. No conscious thought guides me as my hand moves to Elvis, a race between the coffin lid and my need to connect with him one more time. My fingers touch his forehead gently as my heart whispers “Good-bye, brother.” The lid closes; the finality of the cruel sound echoes in the stillness of the room. It’s over.
“I can’t imagine the pain and the pressure you had to prepare Elvis before his funeral.”