When the world said goodbye to Elvis Presley at his funeral


Lisa Marie Presley never liked talking about the last moments she had with her father.

It was 4 a.m. on Aug. 16, 1977, and the 9-year-old couldn’t sleep. Elvis Presley was known to millions as the “king of rock-and-roll,” but in the moment he found her in their Memphis house, he was a father urging his daughter to go back to sleep.

“I ran off, and he had come in and kissed me good night,” she recalled decades later in an interview that aired on TV Land. “That was the last time I saw him alive.”

Hours after he sent her back to bed, Elvis Presley died of cardiac arrest at age 42, the end of a legendary life that President Jimmy Carter said had come to symbolize America’s “vitality, rebelliousness and good humor.” In the days before Presley was to be buried, his daughter took solace in spending time with her father’s body while it was kept inside the home.

“There was something very oddly comforting about that, which made it not necessarily real for me,” Lisa Marie said in the TV interview. “I stayed in there with it for almost the whole time.”

When the time had come to lay Presley to rest in the mausoleum of Forest Hill Cemetery near Graceland, it was all too real — and Lisa Marie wasn’t the only person who had come to say goodbye to him. She was joined by thousands of grief-stricken fans from all corners of the world who descended on Graceland to pay their respects to the fallen king.

“He’s gone,” one woman sobbed in the crowd, according to the Associated Press. “He’s gone.”

Lisa Marie Presley, the only child of Elvis and Priscilla Presley, died Jan. 12 after a brief hospitalization. She was 54 years old. (Video: Allie Caren, Julie Yoon/The Washington Post)

Memories of Presley’s public send-off nearly a half-century ago are bubbling up ahead of his daughter’s public memorial at Graceland on Sunday. Lisa Marie Presley died on Jan. 12 at a California hospital at age 54. The death was announced in a statement by her mother, Priscilla Presley, hours after Lisa Marie Presley was taken to a hospital from her home in Calabasas, Calif. No cause of death has been determined, according to the Los Angeles County medical examiner’s office. Presley will be buried next to her son, Benjamin Keough, who died in 2020, in the famed home where other members of the Presley family are buried. Elvis’s body was moved to the estate two months after the Forest Hill ceremony.

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Lisa Marie’s unexpected death and her Graceland burial plan have opened up old wounds for fans of the Presley family who still feel a deep connection to her father, Michael T. Bertrand told The Washington Post. He is a professor and historian of the American South at Tennessee State University in Nashville.

“For countless people her death felt like this emotional blow in a sense that a connection to Elvis was lost,” said Bertrand, author of the 2000 book “Race, Rock and Elvis.” “She was one of the last direct connections to Elvis. Her death has hit people hard.”

Roy Turner, executive director of the Elvis Presley Birthplace and Museum in Tupelo, Miss., likened Elvis’s death to the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. — all moments embedded in the American psyche. And he agreed with Bertrand that the emotions surrounding Presley’s death have returned with his daughter’s Jan. 12 death.

“Even though you don’t know the person personally, you feel this deep connection and you feel this pain and loss. And I feel the same with Lisa Marie,” Turner said. “It’s very reminiscent of 1977.”

The last year of his life challenged Elvis — he was frustrated by his residency in Las Vegas, addicted to painkillers, struggling with his weight, lampooned by critics. But even as his popularity plummeted in the ’70s, the fans remained loyal to Presley, the pelvis-whirling artist who would perform 1,684 shows, record 784 songs and appear in 31 films in his lifetime.

In fact, people were mourning Presley so much that FTD, the flowers-by-wire service, reported that more than 3,100 floral arrangements were ordered on the day of his death, setting the record for the most sold in a single day in the United States, according to CBS News.

On Aug. 18, 1977, an estimated 18,000 people lined Elvis Presley Boulevard for miles — many carrying signs, flowers and memorabilia on a sweltering summer day — for a chance to catch a glimpse of a funeral procession featuring 49 vehicles. Among the cars in the procession was the gleaming white Cadillac hearse with the rose-covered coffin carrying the singer’s body and at least 10 other white Cadillac limousines that followed.

Behind Presley’s hearse was the car carrying his ex-wife, Priscilla Presley, her face hidden behind her veil. Priscilla was spotted clutching Lisa Marie to her breast with overwhelming sadness. Priscilla recalled to NBC’s “Today” show in 2018 how throngs of fans covered both sides of the streets leading up to the cemetery.

“You’d see glimpses, you’d see people crying, hysterical, fainting, and that’s how impactful it was and still to this day,” she said.

Many of those in attendance were families from places all over — Wisconsin, Indiana, Colorado — who dropped what they were doing and traveled many hours and hundreds of miles to be there. The scene took on a carnival vibe at times, with men selling Presley T-shirts and mementos, ice cream and copies of local newspapers.

“When I heard the news, I just drove around stunned for about three hours and then we got on a plane and came here,” Drema Anderson of Baltimore told the Tennessean.

“There will never be another one like him,” another fan told CBS News. “To me, he’ll live in the hearts of people forever.”

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One of the fans in attendance was Sally Worty, a 25-year-old barefoot, blond woman from Phoenix who clutched a stuffed animal and repeatedly cried out, “Oh, Elvis, oh, Elvis,” according to the Associated Press.

“How can these people get in their cars and drive away when Elvis is dead?” Worty asked at the time. “How can they just act normal?”

About 200 family members, friends and close associates attended the private service at Graceland, a star-studded event that brought John Wayne, Burt Reynolds, George Hamilton, Ann-Margret and Caroline Kennedy.

While Bill Murray was not formally invited, the “Saturday Night Live” star later revealed how he felt compelled to be at the public events and took a flight to Memphis. As the procession headed to Forest Hill Cemetery, Murray recounted to the “Today” show how he found himself in the middle of what he described as “an extraordinary thing to see.”

“As I ran across the cemetery, all of a sudden the motorcycles came in and the motorcycle cops looked at me like, ‘If you move, we will kill ya,’” Murray said. “I just froze, and all the cars rolled by. They were all staring and pointing at me. I thought, ‘Oh God, I’m busted.’ And I realized they were pointing at Elvis’s mother’s grave; I was standing right at her gravesite. It was a very interesting moment.”

But as family and friends helped remember Presley during the private service, Eddie Fadal, who described himself as a “lifelong friend” to Elvis, noted how Lisa Marie was doing her best to grapple with the idea of life without her father.

“Lisa doesn’t seem to know what has really happened,” Fadal said in August 1977, according to the Tennessean. “She’s sitting and playing with her toys around the pool. She has seen the body, but is just oblivious to what this is all about.”

Though Lisa Marie’s service will be more private than her father’s funeral, Elvis historians agree that the days since her death have been an emotional stretch for fans who remember images of her big smile as she rode around Graceland in golf carts with her dad.

“All of those feelings we had for Elvis are absolutely coming back up with Lisa Marie,” Turner said. “We all share in the pain for Priscilla and for her children in their loss, in addition to whatever own loss we as fans might feel.”

Bertrand expects fans will feel similarly in talking about Lisa Marie’s death as they have whenever Elvis’s death comes up. In other words, they won’t like talking about the loss of the daughter of the king of rock-and-roll: “It’s going to be a sad day for a lot of people.”

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