Knoxville is the third-largest city in Tennessee, best known now as a college town. Originally it served as the frontier capital of the Southwestern Territory. At least two of its prehistoric Native American burial mounds still survive, relics of a civilization so old that it was a mystery to the Cherokee when white settlers arrived in the 1790s.
Knoxville was the most bitterly divided city in America during the Civil War. It’s also site of one of the earliest national cemeteries, burial ground of Union men who died during the weeks-long campaign in East Tennessee.
Knoxville’s cemeteries inspired James Agee’s A Death in the Family and Tennessee Williams’ essay “The Man in the Overstuffed Chair.” Frances Hodgson Burnett lived here as a teenager and buried her mother here. Also buried here are blues legend Ida Cox and Indy 500 driver Pete Kreis, whose sarcophagus bears a tiny marble car completing “The Last Lap” on its track. The book is filled with charming stories of Knoxville’s other citizens, from sculptors to judges to ghosts.
(Yes, I know the photo is Bessie Smith, but that’s what I could find on Youtube that didn’t have an irritating animation. Sorry!)
The absolute highlight of the book, however, is Aaron Jay’s lovely black and white photography. He captures the grave sculptures as if they are on the verge of coming to life and catches the light playing across the ornamentation and lettering. Knoxville was known as the Marble City for the stone quarried and carved there. This book makes a good case for visiting and seeing these beautiful artworks for yourself. Old Gray Cemetery is now on my vacation wishlist.
I bought my copy at Dark Delicacies in Burbank, California, but if you can’t make the trip, you can find the book in hard cover and paperback on Amazon.
One of the readers of Cemetery Travel sent me the lovely video he made about his local graveyard, Elmwood Cemetery in Memphis, Tennessee. Edward Valibus says it’s the oldest continually active cemetery Memphis.
The Meditation Garden
3734 Elvis Presley Boulevard
Memphis, Tennessee 38116
Phone: (901) 332-3322 Founded: 1964 Number of interments: 4 Free Walk-Ups to the Meditation Garden: Wednesday – Monday: 7:30 a.m. to 8:30 a.m. daily. On Tuesdays: 7:30 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Night walkups are available around his January 8th birthday, but those are finished for this year.
With the encouragement of his parents, 22-year-old Elvis Presley bought the 23-room Graceland Mansion in 1957. The surviving members of his family, including his wife Priscilla, daughter Lisa Marie, both of Elvis’s parents, his paternal grandmother and an aunt all called the mansion home.
Elvis added the Meditation Garden to the Mansion grounds in 1964. Its centerpiece is a round 12-foot pool with six fountain jets, half-surrounded by a semi-circular pergola on its south side. Beyond that stands a brick wall with arched stained glass windows.
After his sudden death from heart failure — exacerbated by a cornucopia of pharmaceuticals — on August 16, 1977, Elvis was dressed in a white suit, packed into a 900-pound copper coffin, and driven down the street that bears his name to the Forest Hill Cemetery in Memphis. A small service was celebrated at the family mausoleum. His father Vernon was the last to pay his respects. He kissed the casket and promised, “Daddy will be with you soon.” Vernon died two years later from, some say, a broken heart.
Grave robbers may or may not have attempted to break into the mausoleum in late August 1977, but three men really were jailed for criminal trespassing. After that, Elvis’s father Vernon petitioned the city to change its zoning laws so that Graceland could host a burial ground. The Meditation Garden, near the pool, became Elvis’s final resting place. He was reburied with his mother, who had predeceased him, on October 3, 1977. The area opened to the public in 1978, four years before the Mansion itself opened as a museum. Elvis’s grave is now under 24-hour video surveillance.
Detail of Elvis’s bronze grave marker.
In addition to Elvis’ mother Gladys, his father Vernon, and his grandmother Minnie Mae, there’s a cenotaph in the Meditation Garden to Jesse Garon Presley, Elvis’ still-born twin, who remains buried in an unmarked grave in Tupelo, Mississippi. Also apparently buried at Graceland, according to Findagrave.com, are several animals, including Scatter the Chimp and the horses Rising Sun and Ebony’s Double, who was the last of Elvis’s horses to survive. They are buried in the pasture behind the house. Edmond, a dog who belonged to Elvis’s Aunt Delta (the last Presley family member to live in the house) is also buried there. It appears that Aunt Delta herself is buried at Forest Hill Cemetery, although Findagrave doesn’t have a record of that.
Each year, 600,000 people continue to visit the Graceland Mansion in all its gaudy, ornately decorated glory, according to Time’s List of Top 10 Celebrity Grave Sites. The anniversary of Elvis’s death alone draws tens of thousands of people.
In May 2012, Julien’s Auctions announced it was brokering the sale of Elvis’s original mausoleum at Forest Hill Cemetery during a Music Icons memorabilia sale. The tomb was expected to go for more than a million dollars to a fan who wanted to lie where Elvis had briefly rested. By June, the mausoleum was removed from the auction, reportedly withdrawn at the request of fans who would like it to continue to be a site of pilgrimage.
Elvis’s grave at Graceland can be visited for free just by walking up during the hours listed above. The tours of the Mansion all end in the Meditation Garden. Graceland is closed Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day, and Tuesdays in January, February, and December. Otherwise, it’s open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. in January and February, and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. the rest of the year. The schedule is here. Admission to the basic tour of the Graceland Mansion will set adults back $33; Seniors, Youths, and Students with ID: $29.70; Children 7-12: $15. Children 6 and under are free.
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