Forty years later, local funeral director remembers Elvis

Wednesday, August 23, 2017
This photo appeared on the front page of the Memphis Commercial Appeal on the morning of Aug. 17, 1977. The hearse from Memphis Funeral Home is leaving Baptist Hospital transporting Elvis to the funeral home. Dennis Hamilton is seated in the middle.

Forty years later, Dennis Hamilton says people still ask him “The Question.”

“Is Elvis really dead?”

Hamilton, whose family now operates Bills-McGaugh and Hamilton Funeral Home in Lewisburg, has first-hand knowledge.

He was one of the funeral directors who coordinated Elvis Presley’s funeral in Memphis in 1977.

Last week was the 40th anniversary of the passing of the “King of Rock and Roll” and, as thousands still descend on Memphis to honor Elvis’ memory, the question still comes up.

“We never imagined that 40 years later we’d be talking about this,” he said.

Hamilton was only a couple of years out of school and working at Memphis Funeral Home.

When news of Elvis’ death began circulating, the funeral home, which had handled the funeral of Elvis’ mother years before, thought they might get the call.

When the call did come, Hamilton found himself one of three funeral directors, instead of the usual one, assigned to Elvis’ funeral.

“We knew we were in uncharted waters,” said Hamilton. “We tried to stay focused.”

What followed were three days unlike any others he has experienced during his career.

Fans who knew of the previous relationship between the family and the funeral home had started to gather in the parking lot of the funeral home.

The normally routine trip to the hospital to retrieve a body turned into a scene that Hamilton described as “chaos.”

Hamilton and the other two directors found themselves jogging through the halls of Memphis Baptist Hospital with an escort of Memphis police officers.

Mourners and curiosity-seekers had come to the hospital and were wandering the halls.

Memphis police had received threats that they felt were credible from people intending to kidnap the King’s remains.

One photographer, hoping to get a picture of the body for the National Enquirer, was found hiding under a sheet on a gurney in the hospital pretending to be a corpse.

Finally back at the funeral home, Hamilton said that 15 to 20 police officers stayed overnight to guard the body.

“That was a long night, obviously,” said Hamilton.

Hamilton dressed Presley for the viewing held the next day at Graceland, where security was tight as thousands of mourners waited to pay their respects.

The thousands of floral arrangements being delivered quickly filled any available space, and the decision was made to have them delivered to Forest Hill Cemetery, where the entombment would take place the next day.

An estimated 80,000 lined the roads for the three mile trip from Graceland to the cemetery.

The family requested white limousines for the funeral procession.

The funeral home had five available and reached out to funeral homes in neighboring states in order to gather enough for the procession.

“I wonder sometimes how we got all of it done back then,” said Hamilton, in the days before cell phones made communication easy.

Hamilton said that the only time during the entire event that he panicked was when the procession was about to leave Graceland.

He assigned to ride with the family, in the limousine following the hearse, and when time came for him to get in the car, someone had inadvertently locked the doors, leaving him alone outside of the limo while the procession waited to begin.

After the Thursday service, Hamilton said he went home and slept for two days.

Forty years later, Hamilton still keeps the experience in perspective.

“People don’t remember this, but we had five other funerals that day,” said Hamilton.

“Everybody is important. I’ve dealt with thousands of families since then and we try to give them the same care we gave him,” he said.

“I just happened to be there,” Hamilton said. “I don’t want it to be the summary of my career.”

“It was a funeral we had. It was just a little bit different.”