As I write this, Elvis Week has officially “left the building” here in Memphis, but that doesn’t mean there’s a little less conversation to be had. Oh, contraire! Everyone is still all shook up from all the fun that was had, and we carry a burning love in our hearts for the man, the myth, and the legend that was and IS Elvis Presley. (See what I did there? Don’t be cruel..oops I did it again. Wait, wrong performer. #freebritney)
After 2020 ripped all of us a new a**hole, it was refreshing to get out and stretch my legs and walk all over Memphis to experience the different events going on in celebration of the 44th anniversary of Elvis’ death. I know how weird that sentence reads, because I’ve actually sat here for 5 minutes re-reading it, researching facts about it, and doubting it. First point of conundrum: Elvis has been dead for 44 years. That’s 2 years longer than he actually lived. That sheer fact alone should put “Elvis Week 2021” into perspective for anyone reading this. That man died in 1977 and here we are, 44 years AFTER THE FACT, celebrating his life with folks from all around the world. WHAT?!! Second point of flux: Folks actually FLOCK to Memphis during “Elvis Week” in some of the worst heat of our Memphis summer to “celebrate” Elvis on the anniversary of his DEATH. Don’t get me wrong, they mourn his death, deeply. One only has to experience the annual Candlelight Vigil held on the eve of his death (August 15th) to know that it’s just as moving and solemn as the emotions felt on the day he died on August 16th, 1977. However, they celebrate Elvis all week long in many fun events, some of which I’ll discuss in another article. Today, though, we are here to talk about The Candlelight Vigil.
According to “The Official Blog of Graceland”: “The very first Candlelight Vigil was held in 1978 the year after Elvis’ passing, by a small group of fans who gathered at the gates of Graceland. For the vigil, we shut down Elvis Presley Boulevard, and fans from around the work walk up the driveway to Elvis’ gravesite and back down carrying a candle in quiet remembrance. It’s truly a magical, meaningful moment – one not to be missed during Elvis Week.”
Y’all, this is THE event of the entire week. “The Vigil” as a lot of folks refer to it as, is one of those things that, even if you aren’t an Elvis fan, you really should experience at least ONCE in your lifetime. People bring lawn chairs, chalk, candles and more. They have their same spots they like to set up in every year, right on the boulevard in front of Graceland. Artists take to creating portraits of Elvis right on the road using their chalks and paints; small shrines are erected, evoking a sense of awe and quiet reflection; and yet, people are laughing, hugging, reconnecting after not seeing each other in the last year. Their shared love of Elvis having created family out of strangers.
This year the crowd was smaller than normal, but still nothing to sneeze at. You can feel the energy change as the time for the opening ceremony draws near. Folks grow quieter. There’s already a long line of loyal fans zig-zagged against the wall up on the sidewalk and spilling onto the boulevard with unlit candles in hand. The torch bearers, which consist of presidents and members of the Elvis Presley Fan Clubs from around the world, are inside the gates waiting for the ceremony to begin.
I don’t think I ever paid attention to this fact in the past, but the candles are lit from the eternal flame that burns at Elvis’ grave. A torch is lit at the grave and quietly walked down the winding driveway. All subsequent torches and candles are lit from that one flame. Upon learning that this year, I got super emotional. I blame covid.
As the ceremony begins, Elvis music is playing, there’s a sing along, and fan club members give short speeches. This year, Priscilla Presley spoke during the Opening Ceremony. It was very moving. I didn’t get to “see” her, but I could hear her entire speech on the loudspeakers as I was making my way in. There is the “unofficial” lighting of the candles so that everyone in the media world can take a photo or video of the crowd with their candles lit. It’s a beautiful, yet solemn, moment. These are the photos you see in the papers the next day. Then, it’s lights out as everyone snuffs their candles and patiently waits to relight them from one of the torches manned by members of the fan clubs on the inside of the gates leading up the drive to the Meditation Garden. Elvis music is playing again on speakers that are lined up on top of the entire length of the wall, as well as up the driveway.
Once folks are officially winding up the driveway with candles lit, a little bit of the heaviness dissipates across the crowd still outside the gates on the boulevard. If you like to people watch, like I do, this is PRIMO territory for it. Let your eyes adjust to the crowd, and you’ll begin seeing familiar looking faces. (Hint, the later it goes, the more famous the faces, hoping to skip the main crowds but wanting to pay respects. You’re welcome.) You may even think you spot Elvis himself walking in and out of the crowd, as many tribute artists make it down to the vigil as well.
As you are outside the gates, you notice folks taking pictures, still milling around and quietly talking with each other as they pass time. The folks running Graceland are smart. They usually have Dean Z walking around in the crowd with mic in hand, a cameraman bringing up the rear, speaking to fans as they wait their turn to go up the driveway. He’s the perfect man for the job. Not only is he a renowned Elvis Tribute Artist known all around the world, but he’s possibly one of the most down to earth and approachable people I’ve ever met so he’s MADE for this job. Kudos, Graceland, kudos.
Inside the gates, the mood shifts drastically. The torch bearers are lined up in two lines to make lighting your candle a little faster process. They hand you a keepsake itinerary which I have several of from over the years. No one is speaking. You feel the importance of the evening hit you square upside your head as you light your candle. The line snakes slowly all the way up the drive, so you still have a lot of time to pass before actually getting up to the grave-site itself. There are water stations all throughout, which are very welcomed as you are standing there for quite a while. You can see the emotions and tears on the faces of those ahead of us who’ve already been through the Meditation Gardens as they walk back down the drive towards the gates.
For me, this was the first time to see his grandson’s, Benjamin Keough, burial spot. Ben was Lisa Marie Presley’s only son (she also has 3 daughters) who passed away in July 2020 from suicide. I’d met Ben several times. I danced with him down at Elvis Presley’s Memphis on Beale Street where I was a swing dancer during the “Dempseys” era while Lisa Marie and Priscilla both watched, and visited with him as a young adult at The Guest House at Graceland, where we snapped a picture together. He smelled like mint chocolate and was so sweet. A truly tragic loss for so many.
Once you make it up the drive, there is a walkway leading from the drive to the garden which is lined with floral arrangements from all around the world, mainly from the fan clubs. They are interesting to look at as you make your way up to the garden. Once you are at the circular gravesite area which is the Meditation Garden, the amount of flowers and keepsakes left at the graves is truly awe-inspiring. It’s an emotional experience that only compares to that of when I go visit my own father’s gravesite. The line is fairly fluid, with folks stopping just long enough to snap pictures, say a few whispered words of love and prayers as they lay flowers at Elvis’s grave, and move along. There’s the beautiful statue to visit, the stained glass “windows” in the wall in front of the graves, and the eternal flame itself, all to see. You walk past the pool that’s lit up in the evening lights as well.
Elvis’ family is surrounding him in death, as they did in life. (His father, mother, and grandmother Minnie Mae are also buried here) It’s quite moving and full of reverence to be a part of this moment. Quiet tears are shed by most everyone at some point during this pilgrimage to honor the man who changed the world with his music and life story.
Oh, and it’s worth noting, absolutely NO videos are allowed at the Meditation Gardens, and a staffer WILL call you out, whether you actually are or are NOT taking a video. I say this because I was taking a panoramic picture of the grave-site and she made a beeline for me and called me out and was snippy even after I explained what I was doing. I’m not still miffed about it over a week later, you are. What? (pounds chesticles in a manly manner and sniffs the air while huffing)
As you are leaving the garden, you have the chance to stop and take a picture of Graceland itself without anything impeding the view. To be that close to the house, at night, is a really cool experience. Of course, it being the night of the Candlelight Vigil is much more moving, if you stop to think of the event that was happening at that house 44 years ago the next day, and how it would impact the world. As you walk back down, making eye contact with anyone waiting their turn in line, there’s an emotional charge that can’t be explained. I don’t care how many times I’ve attended this event, every year I go, it seems it gets more emotional for me.
I also take time to turn and look down the driveway, towards the gates and Elvis Presley Boulevard while standing up by the house. I like to take in that view of the yard and drive from that perspective, much like I imagine Elvis and his family may have done from time to time in the quietness of the evening glow, while the cicadas are singing their songs. All the stories of the “Memphis Mafia” playing out there with fireworks during the 4th of July, or riding on horses and racing around on golf carts help my imagination soar while standing there. I still get shivers if I stand there too long and think about it.
As you walk back down the drive, your candle is usually burnt out at this point. I saved several stumps for years before finally throwing them away. This year mine burned out before I even got to the garden thanks to a nice lil breeze that kept the flames burning down faster than normal. As you make your way back through the gates, onto the boulevard, the solitude of the driveway ends as the real world sounds hit you again.
The magic of the Candlelight Vigil experience, though, it never leaves you. Once you’ve been, you understand. Elvis fan or not, it leaves one with a sense of awe and wonder. How a man, born in 1935 could still be impacting the world 44 years after his death in 2021 is just beyond words. I’m happy to say, his legacy is in good hands, as I’ve witnessed first-hand the younger generation coming up loving and embracing Elvis and his music. I firmly believe in another 44 years, this tradition will still be going strong.
I leave you with the words from Elvis’ Jaycee Award acceptance speech from January 15, 1971:
“When I was a child, ladies and gentlemen, I was a dreamer… I read comic books, and I was the hero of the comic book. I saw movies, and I was the hero in the movie. So every dream that I’ve dreamed has come true a hundred times…
I’d like to say that I learned very early in life that without a song the day would never end.
Without a song a man ain’t got a friend.
Without a song the road would never bend.
Without a song, so I keep singing a song…“