Behind the Graceland Gates at Lisa Marie’s Memorial: ‘We Watched Her Go Through Her Struggles’

Friends Jeanene Erdahl and Lisa Larson drove all night from Minnesota to Graceland, arriving in Memphis at 4:30 in the morning to queue up for a memorial honoring the life of Lisa Marie Presley, who died last week at 54. Later today, they’ll turn around and do it again.

Erdahl and Larson, who became fast friends seven years ago after bonding over their mutual love of Elvis, watched the memorial service just steps from where mourners like Axl Rose and Alanis Morissette were paying musical tribute to the only child of Elvis and Priscilla Presley.

“She was part of our generation, and [we] watched her go through struggles in her life and overcome them,” Erdahl tells Rolling Stone. “She had strength and character and pizzazz, and she just seemed so fun.”

Mourners traveled from around the world to pay their respects to Lisa Marie, a talented musician herself, as well as the caretaker of her father’s legacy for most of her life. Debbie Ramage of Courtenay, British Columbia, was planning to finally visit Graceland next year on her 60th birthday, but decided to come now instead to pay her respects to the family. “I think she was brilliant,” Ramage says of Lisa Marie. “She was very much like her father. She’s got that beautiful spirit like her dad, and she was a beautiful singer.”

Under a cold, gray winter sky in Memphis, family, friends, and a crowd of mourners estimated in the thousands gathered in front of a stage set up just behind the gates of Graceland — the mansion Elvis bought in 1957 and the home where Lisa Marie spent her first four years. Attendees lined the circular drive and stretched toward the stone wall running along the north side of the property as a succession of guests, from Priscilla Presley to Memphis Mafia alum Jerry Schilling, took the dais. As each speaker entered and exited the tent, the crowd — unprompted — raised aloft photos of Lisa Marie and waved them in tribute.

MEMPHIS, TENNESSEE – JANUARY 22: Fans gather to pay their respects at the memorial for Lisa Marie Presley on January 22, 2023 in Memphis, Tennessee. Presley, 54, the only child of American singer Elvis Presley, died January 12, 2023 in Los Angeles. (Photo by Jason Kempin/Getty Images)

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Like the overall mood, the musical performances were mostly somber, with Billy Corgan of Smashing Pumpkins (whose friendship with Lisa Marie dates to their 2003 collaboration “Savior”) playing the somber Adore cut “To Sheila” on an acoustic guitar. Alanis Morissette took the stage with a pianist to sing “Rest,” which she wrote after Chester Bennington’s suicide in 2017 and released for Mental Health Action Day in 2021. 

Then in a surprise appearance that could only be overshadowed by a cameo from Elvis himself, Axl Rose emerged. Dressed in a long dark coat and scarf, the Guns N’ Roses frontman, vulnerable and emotional, stood behind the podium at Graceland and admitted he was tongue-tied and nervous about being asked to speak at the memorial. “I’m still in shock, as I feel like I will continue to be for quite some time,” Rose, a longtime friend of Lisa Marie, said. “I feel like I’m supposed to be texting her like right now.” He followed his remarks, read from his phone, by taking a seat at the grand piano and playing a fleet-fingered rendition of GNR’s signature ballad, “November Rain.”

Following the just-over-an-hour service, the mourners — who were asked not to photograph family members and guests out of respect for Lisa Marie — quietly walked Graceland’s driveway to Lisa Marie’s final resting place in the Meditation Garden, the same route that thousands of the Presley faithful take each August 15 as part of the candlelight vigil to mark the anniversary of Elvis’ death.

MEMPHIS, TENNESSEE – JANUARY 22: Fans gather to pay their respects at the memorial for Lisa Marie Presley on January 22, 2023 in Memphis, Tennessee. Presley, 54, the only child of American singer Elvis Presley, died January 12, 2023 in Los Angeles. (Photo by Justin Ford/Getty Images)

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Wreaths sent from Elvis fan clubs in Italy, Japan, Sweden, and Germany lined the walkway leading to the garden. A bouquet of white and red roses were placed nearby, with a card reading “In Loving Memory, From Axl Rose.” Mourners filed through slowly, first passing the graves of Elvis and his parents, Gladys and Vernon, then curving around to pay respects at Lisa Marie’s grave next to her son, Benjamin Keough, whose suicide in 2020 shattered Lisa Marie. Flowers, stuffed animals, and other mementoes surrounded their mausoleums, with another bouquet of white roses — this one sent by Oprah Winfrey — bridging them.

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After paying her respects, Katrina McElyea of Memphis — whose mother was a nurse for Elvis’ controversial physician, Dr. George Nichopoulos, and who occasionally plays Elvis’ mother in reenactments of his life — reflected on Lisa Marie’s memory and what she meant to the global Elvis community.

“She was someone who cared about not just her family and her father’s legacy; she cared about the fans, she cared about the tribute artists,” McElyea says. “She genuinely loved every one of us, and to be here and give back even a fraction of that love is really special for me.”

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