I finally obtained obtained a copy of the rare book The King is Dead by Robert Holton. This book was first published in 1998 with a second printing in 2004. Not many copies were printed, which makes this book very difficult to locate. Holton’s book describes in great detail the three days surrounding Elvis’ funeral August 16-18, 1977 based on the memoirs of Elvis’ Funeral Director, Robert Kendall. This is great because it is the first book I have read from this perspective, not from a friend or family member, but from the business of the Funeral Director. I learned many details from those days, which I had not heard before, but took them with a grain of salt as there were also many inaccuracies.
Robert Kendall grew up in the same neighborhood as Elvis and knew of him before he was famous. As an adult while working at the Memphis Funeral Home, Kendall often chauffeured Elvis to and from the airport. Even though he seemed to know Elvis, Kendall did not seem at all emotional about Elvis’ passing. He was more excited about furthering his career by being in charge of this funeral on an international stage. SPOILER ALERT – stop reading now if you plan on reading The King is Dead and don’t want to read all the details here first.
On Tuesday afternoon August 16, 1977 an hour or so before it was publicly announced that Elvis Presley had died, Kendall received a phone call from a woman who refused to identify herself saying he should stay at the funeral home because an ambulance had just left Graceland. Kendall knew this was not a crank call and the woman had to know him personally because she asked to speak with Bobby Joe, and only people who actually knew him called him that.
When Kendall picked up Elvis’ body at Baptist Memorial Hospital, he noticed it was strange the doctors who did the autopsy had no blood or fluids on their smocks. Also, he noticed the room was a bit warm for a room of corpses. Strangely Kendall signed for the body without lifting the sheet to ensure it was in fact Elvis. Once back at Memphis Funeral Home, they removed the sheets and knew instantly that it was in fact Elvis. Kendall noticed that Elvis’ lip was curled in death as it had been in life. He also noticed that Elvis was not circumcised and was of “average endowment.” (ok you know you wanted to know)
Late that night (Aug 16th), Kendall went to Graceland per Joe Esposito’s phone call to visit with Elvis’ father Vernon Presley about Elvis’ funeral arrangements as Elvis had left no instructions. Before this and before hearing from the family, Kendall had already ordered a casket identical to Elvis’ mother Gladys Presley’s from 19 years prior. Vernon approved. Kendall was also given the task of acquiring a pale blue shirt and white tie to go with the white suit Vernon wanted Elvis buried in. This was a suit Vernon had just bought for Elvis two weeks prior in California, and Elvis hadn’t had the chance to wear it. Kendall was also in charge of choosing the crypt in the Forest Hills Mausoleum for Elvis. Vernon instructed him to get a large enough space for four because he would move Gladys there after Elvis’ funeral and he and his mother Minnie would go there as well after they passed. Vernon said Elvis never talked about death, but Elvis did say he did not want to be cremated and Elvis did say he did not want to be buried in the ground. (This makes me sad to think that ultimately Elvis was buried in the ground at Graceland.) Kendall said regardless of what was written about Elvis’ obsession with death that Elvis never visited the Funeral Home at night to look at random dead bodies or to watch embalming. He said Elvis only visited the Funeral Home at night to visit people he knew that had passed, since he could not visit during the day. (Not sure if this is true since both Priscilla and Linda, among others, wrote to the contrary. Maybe Kendall said this so he would not get into trouble since it would have been illegal for Elvis to watch embalming.)
Everything about the funeral was Vernon’s idea: the public viewing, the private invitation only funeral at the house, the white cadillacs, the music and the flowers. Vernon wanted Elvis’ favorite flower, red rosebuds, on the casket rather than the American Flag he was given from the Army. Vernon also instructed there was to be a cross made of white roses on top of that red rosebud pall inscribed from Lisa and Vernon to be the only thing left in room of the crypt after interment. Kendall said Vernon gave him a piece of paper with the pall bearers names on it, but this list is incomplete. It only included George Klein, Joe Esposito, Charlie Hodge, Billy Smith, Lamar Fike and Dr. Nick. Later in the book, Kendall says there were 10 pall bearers.
The next morning at Memphis Funeral Home, Kendall noticed some of the embalming instruments were missing as well as the sheets from Baptist Memorial Hospital that Elvis’s body was wrapped in. Kendall removed one of the mattresses from the coffin because leaving both in with the body would have made it too high and the lid may not have closed. So they cut the mattress into thirds to make three pillows for the three people working Elvis’ funeral to keep as mementos. Kendall then accompanied Elvis’ body to Graceland arriving around 12:30pm on Wednesday August 17th. Joe gave Kendall Elvis’ TCB ring instructing him to put it on Elvis’ third finger of his right hand for the viewing and funeral, but to remove it before the casket was closed and to give it to no one else but Joe. Kendall returned the ring right before they left for Forest Hills. There was a private family viewing where Vernon cried over Elvis’ body and a tear landed on Elvis’ face making it look like Elvis was sweating. After, there was lunch buffet in the Jungle Room for everyone who was there then the Public Viewing started at 3pm and ran into 6:30pm. The family was then left alone with Elvis’ body for the night.
The next morning Thursday August 18th Kendall arrived at Graceland around 10:30am. Elvis’ daughter Lisa Marie Presley gave Kendall a silver bracelet to put on Elvis’ right wrist to be buried with him. (No description or significance of the bracelet was given.) Lisa’s mother (and Elvis’ ex-wife) Priscilla Presley instructed Elvis’ shirt sleeve be pulled over the bracelet, so it would not be seen. There was a brunch in the Jungle Room before the Funeral was to begin at 2pm. Per Kendall’s suggestion and Vernon’s approval, there were two tape recordings made of the funeral. Joe instructed Kendall to give them to the Colonel after the funeral. Kendall never said whether he did or did not hand them over. After the funeral, Vernon, Priscilla and Lisa stayed behind for a few minutes to say their final good byes. As Vernon left, a piece of paper containing the Bible verse Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 (“to everything there is a season …”) fell out his pocket and onto the floor. Vernon did not want to witness Elvis’ casket closing, so Robert Kendall was the last person to see Elvis Presley.
We have all heard the story about the tree branch falling in the Graceland front yard as everyone was getting into the cars to go to Forest Hills Cemetery. How it just suddenly fell from the tree for no reason, there was no wind, nothing. Everyone who has told the story has said it was Elvis making his presence known. Well, Kendall has a different interpretation. He said one of the helicopters flying above trying to get photos of the casket clipped a branch from a tree. (Now that helicopter would have to be flying pretty low for that to happen, wouldn’t it?) The funeral procession purposely drove past Gladys’ grave on their way to the mausoleum. As Elvis’ casket was being carried up the steps, a man jumped out taking photographs. Dick Grob grabbed him and destroyed the film. After the short service in the mausoleum chapel with all 200 guests, just Vernon followed Elvis’ casket into the crypt. After, about 40 people went back to Graceland for a buffet in the Jungle Room.
Kendall says it was just three days later that Gladys’ body was moved into the mausoleum with Elvis. Vernon did not attend. The next day Vernon called to inquire about both Elvis and Gladys being moved to Graceland. They got approval for six underground burial plots in the Meditation Garden at Graceland with the understanding it is illegal to charge admission to the graves. (This is why there are free Walk Ups to the graves every day and admission is charged for a full tour of Graceland, which includes the graves.) In October, Elvis and Gladys returned to Graceland. Vernon and Charlie accompanied the bodies from Forest Hills to Graceland where the rest of the family was waiting. Later the brick wall in the Mediation Garden had to be dismantled to place the statues from Gladys’ original grave, then the wall was rebuilt. Kendall collected dirt from the newly dug graves at Graceland to give to fans.
In December 1977, Vernon asked Kendall to chauffer him and some of the guys to the Liberty Bowl game because Elvis was being honored during the Halftime show. After Vernon and Minnie passed, they were also buried in the Meditation Garden. Kendall never explained why Vernon was placed in between Elvis and his mother, something that has always really bothered me! Kendall did say that in 1977 he thought Elvis Presley would just be a footnote in the history of Rock n Roll. (Ha!) As of the writing of this book in 1998, the Presley family still owned the 10-12 burial sight in Forest Hills Cemetery where Gladys was initially laid to rest.
Ok now some of the inaccuracies from this book that make me question everything I read and just shared with you about Robert Kendall’s account of the events of and surrounding Elvis Presley’s funeral. The fact that he kept such detailed records yet had completely wrong dates and facts makes me wonder if anything he said actually happened or was he just careless with facts. Like everything else I read, I’m taking this book with a grain of salt because I was not there so I cannot know for sure what actually happened.
Kendall said Elvis’ and Gladys’ bodies were moved to Graceland on Sunday October 15, 1977 when in fact they were moved on October 2, 1977 – and October 15th was not even a Sunday, it was a Saturday. Kendall said that radio dj Dewey Phillips sent Elvis such a beautiful flower bouquet that is was one of the ones kept at Graceland, but Dewey died in 1968 nine years before Elvis passed. Kendall said Elvis got his start singing with George Klein on the radio station WKEM. George Klein was a DJ on WHBQ the same station where DJ Dewey Phillips played Elvis’ “That’s All Right” on the radio for the first time and that’s how Elvis got his start (after recording at Sun Studio). Kendall said Elvis’ first national television appearance was on the Ed Sullivan Show, when it was actually on the Dorsey Brothers’ Stage Show. Kendall got the date wrong when he said Elvis and his family first moved to Memphis in 1953 (it was 1948), and in the same sentence said Elvis got his start at Sun Studio in 1951, which doesn’t even make sense. How could he have started at Sun two years before he moved to Memphis?
If you have read The King is Dead, I would love to hear your thoughts. Please comment below.