In early August 1958, Elvis Presley was serving in the army in Fort Hood. His parents had been staying in Texas with him. But his mother Gladys fell ill so on August 8, Elvis insisted that Gladys return to Memphis to be taken care of by her regular doctor.
However, by the time Gladys returned to Memphis, her condition was declining rapidly. The next day she was taken by ambulance from Graceland to Methodist Hospital. Her condition was described as grave, due to a problem with her liver.
On Tuesday, August 12, after a disheartening struggle with his superior officers where he even threatened to go AWOL, Elvis was finally granted emergency leave so he could be by his mother’s side at the hospital in Memphis.
When Elvis arrived at Methodist Hospital on Tuesday night, Gladys cried out: “Oh, my son, my son.” Elvis spent all day on Wednesday, August 13 at the hospital with his mother. He left late that night as Vernon stayed by her side.
Early the next morning at 3:15 AM on August 14, Gladys Presley, the 46-year-old mother of Elvis, died from a heart attack due to hepatitis complications. Upon hearing the news, Elvis immediately returned to the hospital. He was inconsolable as he sank to his knees beside his mother’s bed. He and his father could be heard “wailing” in grief down the hallway of the hospital.
On August 15, Gladys Presley was buried at Forest Hill Cemetery. Her original gravesite was at the top of a hill, on the grounds in the older section of the cemetery. Elvis had a statue of Jesus and a cross surrounded by two angels placed at the site by Gladys’ grave. The name “Presley” was engraved on the marker which would be the location for the family burial plot. When Elvis returned from his army service in Germany in March 1960, he went to visit the grave and saw the statue for the first time.
In 1964, Elvis decided to replace his mother’s original generic tombstone labeled “Gladys Smith Presley” with a new one that was custom-designed. The new marble gravestone included a cross on the right side and a Star of David, in recognition of Gladys’ Jewish heritage, on the left side. The new stone included the words “Sunshine of our home” and labeled Mrs. Presley as Gladys Love Presley, replacing her maiden name of “Smith” with her middle name.
At the time, Elvis was deep into his study of spiritual matters. With the encouragement of friend Larry Geller, Elvis spent many hours studying religions from all over the world. Elvis’s endless thirst for spiritual knowledge blossomed in the 1960s and would be a driving force throughout his life. In fact, that is what prompted him to build the “Meditation Garden” at Graceland in late 1965. Little did he know, he had helped design his future gravesite.
Elvis was open to learning about all different types of religions. In the 1970s, he was often photographed wearing a variety of religious symbols, including a cross, a Star of David, an Egyptian ankh, a crescent moon and star to represent Islam, and a necklace that said the Hebrew word “chai” which means “life.” When asked why he wore virtually every religious symbol around his neck at once, Elvis replied, “I don’t want to miss heaven on a technicality.”
Gladys’ great-grandmother was Jewish. Since Jewish lineage is inherited from the maternal side of the family, that means Elvis was part Jewish as well. Since Elvis and Gladys’ Jewish heritage was not well-known during their lifetimes, some people believe there was an effort to keep it quiet from their Southern Christian neighbors. However, Angie Marchese, the chief archivist at Graceland refutes those rumors.
“It was not something he [Elvis] was shying away from,” she said. “He would be photographed in these [necklaces] and he would make donations to Jewish community centers throughout his entire life.”
Elvis did not plan for the Meditation Garden to be his final resting place. In fact, Presley was originally buried in a crypt at Forest Hill Cemetery in Memphis. Gladys’ remains were moved to the crypt as well just below Elvis’ in a gated room inside the mausoleum. However, on August 29, 1977, less than two weeks after Elvis died, Memphis police became aware of a plot to steal Elvis’ body and hold it for ransom. As a result, Vernon Presley had Elvis’ and Gladys’ remains moved to Graceland’s Meditation Garden on October 2, 1977 for safekeeping. However, since new inscribed stone slabs were placed over each grave, Vernon chose not to have Gladys’ gravestone (with the Star of David) on display at the Meditation Garden.
In 2018, on the 60th anniversary of Gladys Presley’s death, the tombstone Elvis Presley designed for his mother in 1964 was exhumed from storage and placed permanently at Graceland’s Meditation Garden. The gravestone now sits next to the large cross, angels and statue of Jesus that were originally at Forest Hill.
Back in 1958, a month after Gladys died, Elvis was shipped off to Germany for a year and a half. On one hand, Presley being shipped to Germany in late September would help him deal with the loss of his mother. It was a beneficial distraction since Elvis did not have as much time to dwell on his grief because of the constant activity surrounding him in this foreign country.
But, of course, there were moments of sadness. As Sergeant Ira Jones described, Elvis would open up occasionally as he was driving his commanding officer around in his jeep a few months later in Germany.
“From about as far back as I can remember, Sarge, she was my whole life,” Elvis said. “All the money in the world can’t buy back for me what I want the most right now – my Mama.”
Find out more about how Elvis coped with his mother’s death in the new book, ELVIS: The Army Years Uncovered: Behind the Scenes of the Two Years that Changed The King of Rock and Roll’s Life.
CLICK HERE TO ORDER