A while ago I did a blog post on the post-mortem fate of Marilyn Monroe, which has generated a lot of interest on my blog. Celebrities – dead or alive – have a power over us. Decades after their death they still pique our interest. Marilyn has become a hot topic once again recently in the news, with Kim Kardashian damaging her dress at the Met Gala, the release of a new Netflix documentary about her death, and with a new movie about her called Blonde set to be released soon. There has been some outcry online to ‘let her rest’ and to stop speculating in aspects of her life and death. I doubt very much that this will be the case. In fact, those posting about letting Marilyn rest are doing the exact opposite of what they are preaching. She is clickbait for many, which brings up many aspects of post-mortem bodily integrity. With the recent release of Baz Luhrmann’s new Elvis movie, I thought looking at the post-mortem bodily integrity of Elvis Presley was important. Like Marilyn, Elvis is considered one of the greatest icons of the 20th century. So how was Elvis’s body treated upon his death? First, a little bit about ‘The King’.
Who was Elvis Presley?
Elvis Aron Presley was born in Mississippi in 1935. He began his rock and roll career in 1954 in Memphis Tennessee. Despite the flamboyant costumes and the lavish surroundings Elvis became known for, he started off very poor. His musical style was inspired by blues, country, and gospel. Throughout the 1950’s his rockabilly style dominated the charts for the first time – paving the way for other rock musicians. Presley, with his slicked back black hair and thrusting dance moves, became a sex symbol. His good looks and talent meant he also became a movie star and appeared on numerous television specials. His career continued to be successful into the 1960’s, and in 1967 he married his long-time girlfriend, Pricilla. Shortly after, they had a baby girl called Lisa Marie. The two eventually divorced in 1973 but remained good friends. In the 70’s he continued to tour but his lifestyle was catching up with him. He took prescription drugs, ate fatty foods, and had a terrible sleeping pattern – it was even reported he reached 350 pounds in weight. Even at the height of his career he always lacked confidence in himself and feared slipping back into the poverty he experienced in childhood.
How did Elvis Presley die?
Elvis was found dead at his home in Graceland in 1977 at 42 years old. Like most significant cultural icons from the 20th century, his death has been met with speculation and controversy. There have been derogatory jibes made about the position he was found in (i.e., the King died on the Throne) – he was found in the bathroom, likely having died on the toilet before falling to the ground. The fact he was found with his pants down in such a vulnerable position, questions how much information should be released to the public. Is letting the public know he died on the toilet a violation or post – mortem humiliation? Ginger Alden wrote in her memoir about the position in which she found her then boyfriend, as well as how he physically looked upon his death.
Elvis was known to have had a horrific drug problem in the years leading up to his death. He also was reported to have needed a full-time nurse to help him in the months leading up to his death, and that his awful diet even consisted of cheeseburger platters. I recently read Mary Roach’s excellent book Gulp in which she talks about Elvis and his diagnosis of megacolon. He had suffered from chronic constipation due to his diet, colon condition and drug use – it is thought he died from a heart attack brought on by Valsalva manoeuvre. It has also been suggested that he died from a drug overdose that caused his heart to stop. There has also been a theory that he died from a heart attack brought on by an autoimmune condition caused by a brain injury from a fall in 1967. Whatever the case, it is clear his heart stopped very quickly.
What happened to Elvis’s body? Elvis was brought for an autopsy to establish a cause of death at Baptist Memorial Hospital – however, the results of the autopsy have been sealed from the public record until 2027 (50 years after his death). Elvis was embalmed after he was brought to Memphis Funeral Home – he was dressed in one of his famous suits and his hair/ sideburns were dyed to hide his greying hair. He was then transported to Graceland for a public viewing under the direction of his father, Vernon Presley. Vernon was also the person who ordered the results of his autopsy to be sealed, causing much public speculation and even rumours about Presley faking his death. The death of such a well – known celebrity has often come with rumours of the death being a hoax. It’s a question of whether these rumours are generated from the public in denial of the death, from ‘genuine sightings’, or from those who wish to keep their memory alive. There were rumours that the body on display at Graceland was actually a wax dummy that appeared to have ‘beads of sweat’ from melting slightly. His dead body was scrutinised by thousands of people, even though the opened end of the casket was placed slightly out of sight of fans.
Over 30,000 fans were let into the foyer of Graceland to view the open casket before a scaled back funeral service was held at the estate. There were reports that some of fans fainted upon seeing the casket. Friends and Co-stars of Presley were present at the small ceremony before 80,000 fans followed the funeral procession to the burial at Forest Hill Cemetery. He was buried next to his mother, Gladys. A BBC presenter discussed the interaction he had with the family upon viewing the body of the star. Michael Cole was one of the first to view the body and in a Daily Mail article he commented that the head (of a deceased Elvis) was the size of a ‘watermelon’ and he was ‘deathly pale’. He goes on to say he speculated the bloating of the body was from drug use and that the hairstyle that had been done by the hairdresser at the funeral home ‘upset’ him. Like Marilyn, we see that even in death, the appearance of public figures is (and was) commented on. Even the dead are not ‘off limits’ and expected to look their best.
Unfortunately, there was an attempt made to steal the remains of Presley and his mother in the same year as his death. Nine days after the burial, Raymond Green, Eugene Nelson, and Ronnie Adkins attempted to steal the corpse with the intention of holding it for ransom. It was reported they had explosives with them to blow open the mausoleum, and the heavy, copper casket. The casket had been so heavy in fact that eight pallbearers were needed. There has been accusations made against the Presley family themselves, suggesting they were part of the plot to indicate that Elvis should be buried elsewhere – i.e., at Graceland. Initially, burial of Elvis at Graceland was not permitted by the Memphis board. If the body was elsewhere and required security, then surely it would make sense for him to be buried at Graceland where it could be safe? Specifically, his father Vernon – the same man who allowed for public viewing of the casket – has been most associated with the plot. Even more disturbingly, it was suggested that Vernon wanted his son moved to Graceland to generate more income from fans and tourists visiting the estate. If that is true, then even the remains of the King were being seen as something to generate wealth. Some speculate that none of the Presley family are actually buried at Graceland and that their bodies are elsewhere for family members to visit them privately.
In 2010 the Chicago Tribune reported that the embalming tools used on Elvis were being put up for auction by the embalmer who looked after his body. One cannot deny how much of a violation of trust this is. Those working in the death care industry have a responsibility to respect the dead and their families. The ‘John Doe’ tag, rubber gloves, forceps, lip brushes, a comb and eyeliner, needle injectors and aneurysm hooks all allegedly used at the funeral home were up for auction. The lot was eventually withdrawn, not because it was disrespectful to the memory of Presley, but because the authenticity of the tools was brought into question.
Elvis can be considered one of the greatest icons of the 20th century, and continues to generate wealth, conversation and an extraordinary fanbase. It is sad to think that one of the greatest musicians and sex symbols of the 20th century met such an untimely end. His headstone now reads ‘Elvis Aaron Presley’ – Aron is spelled incorrectly, a heart-breaking realisation when you understand that one of his greatest fears was to be forgotten.
Roach, M., 2013. Gulp: Adventures on the alimentary canal. WW Norton & Company.