What Graceland Can Teach Us About Grieving
“Take all the time you need.” John Stamos whispered softly in my ear.
I breathed in slowly, taking in the comfort of his voice. “Thank you, John,” I whispered back as I approached Elvis Presley’s gravesite.
I, a 32 year-old woman certainly not of the Elvis generation, went to Graceland—on purpose—to learn about grieving. I was compelled to make a pilgrimage to this strange cornerstone of America that somehow everyone has heard of but no one has been to because I was curious about how we grieve for American celebrities. I wanted to know what Graceland could teach me as I explore my own thoughts on grieving this year. And with my audio tour guide, John Stamos, in my headphones as I visited where Elvis lived and died, I was very much in the moment…so much so that I was talking to myself just a little bit.
After Elvis Presley's sudden death at home in 1977, local shops nearby his Memphis, Tennessee, Graceland estate started selling unlicensed Elvis merchandise virtually overnight to capitalize on the public’s desire to grieve with their wallets. The Graceland website and tour guides are incredibly transparent that the Presley family's opening of Graceland to the public in 1982, and buying up surrounding properties, were a way to fix the family’s cash flow problem by centralizing where Elvis grief spending would take place.
Graceland is unapologetically consumptive by design.
And it sounds like it’s paid off big time for the Presley family. With half a million visitors every year (people do go there, after all!), they say it's the second-most famous home in America, behind the White House, and it's a National Historic Landmark. Presley’s family wanted to own the profits of grief-fueled transactions, and to facilitate even more transactions, by creating an entire experience in visiting Elvis’s home.
Let me paint a quick picture for you: the Graceland property is located outside of the main hustle and bustle of Memphis. The whole complex is huge, with the actual Graceland, a 13-acre mansion and surrounding grounds, on one side of the street. Elvis’s grave is behind the gates of the mansion and is only accessible if you pay to go on a tour—“for security reasons,” they said. On the other side of the street there is a 200,000 square-foot entertainment complex full of everything Elvis-related that you could possibly imagine, plus huge, paved lots for folks to park their RVs. The people who park their RVs at Graceland likely aren’t thinking about grieving as their driving force for being there. Yet, grieving is precisely why I made my trip.
I assumed Graceland would be full of people in Elvis t-shirts and wigs, sobbing uncontrollably. But on a chilly Monday morning in early February, I was surprised to find no RVs: the parking lot was virtually empty. I walked through the white music note gates of the complex, designed to mimic the famous gates outside the mansion across the street, while some boppy 1950s Elvis tunes echoed over the empty concrete pavilion. As I scanned the park, Elvis's face was everywhere: On every wall, every piece of paper—really on every surface. I braced myself for what I assumed would be a weird day.
My visit to Graceland began in a small theatre with a video that detailed Elvis's life and career—no surprises, there. But I was struck by the fact that it didn't mention his untimely death at all. That set the tone for the rest of the visit: At Graceland, it feels like Elvis is alive, even though he’s buried there, and even though Graceland only exists because Elvis is actually dead. But the cognitive dissonance didn’t even register after a few minutes. I soon found myself tapping my toes to his famous tunes in the introductory video— my guard was down and I was already hooked.
After the short film, I was shuffled outside to board the bus that takes you across the street to the Graceland mansion. But before I could hop on, they were ready to take my picture against an official Graceland background as a part of the lineup process. Seeing no alternative, I shrugged, cheesed big for the camera, and hopped on the bus.
From the moment I stepped off the bus to enter Elvis’s home, it felt intimate. I felt like I was a part of their family, welcomed on my Graceland iPad and headphones by Ambassador John Stamos.
The Graceland mansion is a unique home: stately and southern-looking from the outside, eccentric on the inside. I think bestselling author Margaret Rangel captures the eccentricity of the mansion so well at the end of her series of essays on the American South, Graceland, At Last.
Graceland's formal rooms are all white carpet and gold trimmings and mirrors— walls and walls of mirrors. With its hide-covered furniture and lamps hanging from chains and vines draping a stone wall, the Jungle Room did not disappoint, but downstairs was the real action: a room with three televisions embedded in the walls, a sectional sofa with sequin-bedecked pillows, and a mirror-topped coffee table bearing a bizarre porcelain creature of indeterminate origin gazing toward the door; a billiard room with walls and ceiling entirely upholstered in pleated floral fabric that might have been fashioned by a seamstress on mushrooms.
It really did feel like it could’ve been decorated by a seamstress on mushrooms.
I felt so present exploring these rooms that part of me expected Elvis to pop out from behind a door to say hi. But he and his family are buried right there on the property—their graves all relocated from their original resting places to the Graceland Meditation Garden, outside by the pool. It was there in the garden that John Stamos told me in my headphones to take all the time I needed. And people on my tour did take their time: they paid good money to pay their respects as a part of their day at Graceland.
When I was ready to leave the mansion, I hopped the bus back to see the other exhibits at the park. But as soon as I dismounted the bus—that photo they took? It was already printed for me at a kiosk and ready to purchase for $30. Which, of course, I did.
You can spend the rest of your time at Graceland checking out Elvis’s car collection, his planes, his rhinestone jumpsuits. You can buy just about anything with Elvis’s face on it. You can virtually attend a 1970s Elvis concert in the front row.
Somewhere in the middle of the flashing lights of Elvis Live from Hawaii, where I, alone, danced in the dark, I was once again talking to myself just a little bit. “This is f***ing awesome,” I chuckled as I shook my hips much less attractively than Elvis did on the big screen. It was there, dancing alone as the speakers blared “Suspicious Minds,” that I actually listened to John Stamos’s advice: I took my time.
At Graceland, the consumptive grieving felt like an inside joke I wanted to be a part of— the case of tumblers I saw printed with bold letters, “I still love Elvis” is the perfect example. The joke is that, yes, Elvis is dead, but his fans are still here. And that means that Graceland Grieving doesn’t feel like Grieving Grieving. We’re grieving by celebrating him, by doing the things he loved, by dancing in the dark, and by buying things with his face on it. This all feels totally normal in Graceland.
And I loved it all. I loved walking through row after row of his jumpsuits and Cadillacs and gold records. I loved the $25 mug I bought with his face on it. I loved imagining I was in Hawaii watching him perform.
As I walked out of the park, a little winded from all the excitement, I decided that Graceland has it totally right, after all: paying your respects to Elvis, fully grieving him, is not just visiting his grave. It’s the jumpsuits. It’s the Cadillacs. It’s the mansion. Grieving for Elvis is consumption because that’s exactly how he lived. In death we should honor him the same way.
I’m taking away a big lesson from my time at Graceland: Grieving the loss of someone you love doesn’t have to be sad. It doesn’t have to be all about gravesite visits, though that can be a part of it, and you should take your time to feel the heaviness in those moments. But sometimes the way we grieve can be continuing to do the things that person loved to do, long after they’re gone. The fun things. Grieving can be buying a mug that reminds you of your person. Grieving can be singing along to the songs they loved. We can have fun and grieve. It helps us feel whole even though we know our Someone is missing.
My trip to Graceland cost more than I expected it to, involved more dancing than I thought it would, and reminded me to have fun in my grieving this year. It was a weird day. And it was exactly what I needed.
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