“Mothers losing children — there are no words for it.”
The person who expressed that sentiment during the memorial service Sunday morning for Lisa Marie Presley, the only child of Elvis and Priscilla, was Sarah Ferguson, the Duchess of York.
Ferguson, 63, knows something about tragedy and fame and royalty (literally and otherwise) and family members whose deaths are mourned around the world.
Ferguson is the former wife of Prince Andrew, who is the second son of Queen Elizabeth II, the monarch who died Sept. 8 at the age of 96.
She was the sister-in-law of Diana Spencer, Princess Diana, who was killed at age 36 in a car accident in Paris while fleeing the paparazzi.
Sunday, she was in Memphis to mourn her friend Lisa Marie (“We called each other Sissy”). When she mentioned “my mother-in-law,” she was speaking of one of the rare people of the 20th century whose fame perhaps rivaled that of Elvis.
“My late mother-in-law used to say… ‘Grief is the price of love,'” Ferguson said. “And how right she was.”
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Call it a public funeral or a memorial service or “A Celebration of the Life of Lisa Marie Presley” (that’s how the event was identified on the cover of the four-page program that was handed out by the thousands to the mourning fans who crowded the rain-soaked north lawn of Graceland). Under whatever name, the theme that was repeated again and again on Sunday was that the passing of Lisa Marie at 54 on Jan. 12 of an apparent cardiac arrest in California represented, to a certain extent, the closing of a “full circle,” like the circle of graves around the fountain in the Meditation Garden at Graceland — a circle that now includes the King of Rock ‘n ‘ Roll on its south side and his “little princess,” Lisa Marie Presley, on its north.
Before Priscilla, Lisa Marie was a mother who lost a child: Her tomb in the garden is located next to a matching monument for her son, Benjamin Storm Presley Keough, 27, who died by suicide in 2020. Lisa Marie was buried there earlier in the weekend; on Sunday, the grave site became a public space, visited first by the estimated 5,000 who attended the memorial service and then by others, when Graceland tours resumed at noon, about 90 minutes after the end of the 9 am service.
The service was book-ended by gospel numbers, including “How Great Thou Art” and “Sweet, Sweet Spirit,” performed by the Blackwood Brothers. The combo’s leader, Billy Blackwood, is the son of the late James Blackwood, a founding member of the group, which Elvis called his favorite gospel quartet. (Between the gospel performances, Billy Corgan, playing an acoustic guitar, sang the Smashing Pumpkins’ “To Sheila,” with its chorus “You make me real”; Axl Rose sat at a piano and performed the Guns N’ Roses hit “November Rain”; and Alanis Morissette, accompanied by a pianist, sang her song “Rest,” which asks: “Can we cut this woman some slack? Let her lie down.”)
Blackwood said his late father sang at Elvis’ funeral (Elvis died at 42 in 1977) and Elvis’ mother’s funeral (Gladys Presley — another mother who lost a child, Elvis’ stillborn twin, Jesse — died at 46 in 1958). “So this is kind of full circle,” he said, fighting tears.
Jerry Schilling, 80, a longtime friend of Elvis and, later, of Priscilla, and a lifelong friend of Lisa Marie, expressed a similar thought. “I was in the hospital with her father when Priscilla was giving birth,” he said. “I was at the hospital with her mother when she left us.”
He said he had never held a baby before Elvis invited him to hold the infant Lisa Marie, while they were in the kitchen at Graceland. If he wasn’t exactly a parent who had lost a child, he was close. “I always called Lisa ‘Memphis,'” he said. “She had that attitude.”
Schilling and about 100 other family members and friends — Priscilla Presley; Lisa Marie’s children, actress Riley Keough, and the 14-year-old twins, Harper and Finley; former husband Danny Keough; Baz Luhrmann and Austin Butler, the director and star of the movie, “Elvis”; Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland and Congressman Steve Cohen, among others — were seated under a tent that faced the mansion, in front of a dais that held a transparent lectern embossed with the Graceland logo, a grand piano, some flowers, and a pair of large color portraits of Lisa Marie.
Risers hosting dozens of media members — from England, Australia, New Zealand, Germany, The New York Times, NBC, CBS, Fox and so on — stood behind the mourners. The damp air kept everybody shivering, even if the temperature was in the 30s, not the low 40s. Twice during the service a skinny, stray dog scurried back and forth in front of the mansion, as if to remind the Hollywood and royal visitors of the Presley family’s rural roots.
The public, meanwhile, was massed together to the left of the mourners, standing in deep rows under bare trees and gray skies, along one of the winding driveways used most often by the Graceland tour buses. After the service, the fans, like the dignitaries, were able to visit the Meditation Garden. They placed flowers in front of Lisa Marie’s tomb (alongside a large bouquet of white roses that had been seen sent by Oprah Winfrey), and admired elaborate floral tributes from Sweden, Finland, Japan and elsewhere, some of which had been mailed simply to “Lisa Marie Presley, Graceland, Memphis.” (At the start of the service, Joel Weinshanker, majority owner of Elvis Presley Enterprises, described Graceland as “the forever home of Lisa Marie Presley.”)
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Although the fans did not know Lisa Marie personally, their thoughts echoed those of the dignitaries. Many said they felt as if a family member had died.
“Lisa Marie was his flesh and blood,” said Julie Anderson Roy, 50, of Bradley, Illinois. “To lose her, we have finally lost Elvis.”
She said she felt that loss from multiple perspectives. “It just breaks my heart for Priscilla to have to bury her child. It breaks my heart for the twins, because I am the mother of twins.”
Eula Webb, 88, of Marianna, Arkansas, met Elvis briefly in 1955. She saw him in concert in Hawaii and Las Vegas, and she came to Memphis the day after Elvis’ Aug. 16, 1977, death, to join the chaotic grief-stricken throng on Elvis Presley Boulevard.
“It was very sad, it was crazy, it was pitiful,” she said. “You had to keep your mind going on why you were there, to remember Elvis, and not get caught in the craziness.”
Sunday’s event was hardly crazy but it was inevitably, sad, despite what Weinshanker said was Lisa Marie’s No. 1 wish for her funeral: “Don’t make it sad.”
When Webb heard Lisa Marie had died, “I cried and I cried and I cried.” But attending the service provided some solace, she said.
Others agreed. Said Roy: “For me, this is a way of honoring her father, and honoring her.”
This article originally appeared on Memphis Commercial Appeal: Lisa Marie Presley: Memorial service closes ‘circle’ for mourners