On the morning of August 16, 1977, Joe Esposito made a tragic discovery in a mansion in Memphis, Tennessee—the lifeless body of Elvis Presley. The world's biggest pop star had unexpectedly died of a heart attack.
The next day, The Sun newspaper ran a front page story on his death...
"For Elvis, the poor boy who became the world's highest paid performer, was the victim of his own phenomenal success.
His millions enabled him to indulge his every whim, and that led to his undoing and his death.
His fondness for junk food—hamburgers and soft drinks—became an addiction, as did his thirst for thrills and experiences...and drugs.
Elvis sought kicks with motorcycles, women, parties, guns, pinball machines, pool tables and no timetable.
He liked to stay up late—all night if he was enjoying himself—surrounded by the cousins and bodyguards that comprised his 'Memphis Mafia.'"
Of course the most amazing part of this is "pinball machines' being listed as one of his death-inducing vices. LOL.
What's also striking about The Sun's article was the headline...
"KING ELVIS DEAD: He Was 42 And Alone"
And then the first sentence of the article...
"ELVIS PRESLEY, the rock 'n' roll king who thrilled millions, died alone yesterday aged 42."
They led with that word. Twice.
The entire world was grieving its biggest star, and they went out of their way to note that he "died alone." Of all the potential post-mortem tributes, they chose to lead with that? Not his talent? Not his personality or charm? Not his musical legacy?
They led with his aloneness.
And The Sun wasn't the only publication that did this.
In Elvis's hometown of Memphis, a local newspaper led with the headline...
"A Lonely Life Ends on Elvis Presley Boulevard."
Elvis had everything he ever wanted, but it was his aloneness that headlined his legacy...at least to some. Maybe the newspaper-men were just teasing the newsstands with some good 'ol fashioned schadenfreude, but it still strikes me as odd.
I think I think about death more than most people. Maybe it's an introvert thing.
I've noticed my really outgoing, extroverted friends hate talking about death. My friend Chris (the one from London) is one of the biggest extroverts I know, and he gets creeped out at the sight of a coffin. He doesn't like Halloween decorations either. I don't know why, but introverted/artsy types handle the topic better.
I love cemeteries too.
I was in Boston recently for a friend's bachelor party, and we toured the Granary Burial Ground, founded in 1660. It's the final resting place for some of Boston's historical legends—Paul Revere, Sam Adams, John Hancock, Crispus Attucks, and Mary Goose (aka, Mother Goose).
Pre-Revolutionary War headstones are super macabre. They loved their skulls and skeletons back then. I took pics...
And in Atlanta, the incredible Oakland Cemetery is right across from my loft in Cabbagetown.
It's where all the bigwigs of Atlanta's past are buried and the final resting place for slaves and Confederate troops as well.
Sometimes I go on runs through there, because it's just so darn interesting. The names on the headstones are interesting. The stonework is interesting. The towering mausoleums of Atlanta's wealthiest dead are interesting.
And angels....angels everywhere!
I wonder when it went out of fashion to put skeletons on your gravestone and became cool to put angels on it? Victorian era, I bet.
Running through a cathedral of death is more interesting than it would seem. And it's a good reminder about life and a calibration back towards things that matter.
A couple of years ago, I went on a mission to track down my grandparents' graves.
That shouldn't be that hard, but they'd died about a decade earlier, and I couldn't remember where the graves were. I remembered the cemetery in north Alabama, because I was at their graveside services. But I could barely remember where the spot was.
So on a rainy day in November I visited that cemetery and paced the rows of headstones for about an hour until I stumbled upon the one with TRAPP etched on it. I snapped a pic...
I paid my respects.
I thought about a few childhood memories with them. I felt some regret over not spending more time with them when I was younger. It was a good time of reflection, and I finished by saving the GPS coordinates to my phone so I could find it next time.
I began my walk back to my car when I noticed a silver PT Cruiser moving slowly through the cemetery. It came to a stop, and the door cracked opened. An older gentlemen of at least 70 struggled to get out of the driver's seat. He was wearing a bright blue jacket and matching hat. He was alone. Cane in hand, he began creeping across the wet grass .
Something inside me told me to stop, so I did. I've learned it's important to listen to that voice.
I shouldn't have done it, but I snapped another picture...
And then I watched.
One slow step at a time, he teetered through the headstones until he came to the one he was looking for. He stopped.
And for the next few minutes he stood still, solemnly staring at a particular headstone.
He reached into his pocket, pulled out a handkerchief, and brought it to his face. He began sobbing.
After about 5-7 minutes, he turned away and began the journey back to his car. And then I watched him drive away.
I stood there still, knowing I'd witnessed a sacred moment.
I suppose he could have been visiting the grave of his parents or a child who died too soon. But I think it was more likely his wife.
It was around Thanksgiving then, and I imagined the holidays made him miss her, made him yearn for years gone by—Thanksgiving lunches around a beautifully-set table, afternoons gardening in the Alabama soil, late nights watching the Johnny Carson Show on a bulky TV set.
And in that moment I realized that this man was likely the last person on earth to know—really know—this woman. And once he's gone, she will be forgotten.
So it is with us all. We'll all be dead and forgotten. I've heard it said that the vast majority of people are forgotten in one—maybe two—generations.
Most people find this depressing, but I find it oddly comforting.
A little mantra I've created for myself is...
"Relax, we'll all be dead in 100 years."
Of course, most of us will be dead before that, but if you say 100, it includes everyone around you, including the children.
It's a reminder that all this—friends, neighbors, politicians, celebrities—will all be dead in 100 years. Every loud and boisterous and arrogant person will just be...dead...six feet under.
That's incredibly freeing to me because it lets us enjoy our days without freezing them in permanence. The IMpermanence of life is beautiful and when you combine it with the Christian notion of grace, it frees us up to go for it, to live big, to be courageous.
One of the cool things about death is that everyone is equal in the grave...
Slave & slave master...
Prince & pauper...
Artist & accountant...
Pioneer & prisoner...
Celebrity & serf.
And while death is inevitable, we still have to live. We still have to do our best to use our lives well. This is one of the great paradoxes of life: That our time on earth is both utterly precious and completely insignificant.
Life changed for me when I turned 30.
I got very reflective and began to view time very differently. In my 20s I cared a lot about money, but in my 30s it switched to time...
Time is the game.
Time is the thing we can't get more of. We can't buy it, print it, manufacture it, multiply it, or duplicate it. It's always being depleted. It's always slipping away. Every day we wake up and we have less than we did the day before.
We can't store it up or pace it out. We can't hoard it for a later date. The steady, regular decay of time is the most predictable force on earth.
Time is an invisible bank account we never know the balance of but are certain will eventually run dry. Some men are rich in time. Some men are poor in time. But both men always go bankrupt. Always.
We will always go bankrupt.
You will always go bankrupt.
I will always go bankrupt.
And when you start thinking about time, you start thinking about the future.
People love thinking about the future because it's time that hasn't been accounted for yet. The future is like Playdoh—malleable, shapeable. The past, however, is like stone—rigid, fixed, unforgiving. We'd much rather play in the future.
For the lifetime-single though, the future can be a scary place. We're able to carve out certainty in lots of categories of life, but the social uncertainty of walking through life solo changes everything. It changes how we think about the future.
My 30s was when I began to think about the future...a lot. I dreamed about what it could be.
In the best case scenario, I'd forge a life of adventure and joy. I'd build a magnificent career that paid really well. I'd live in a fine home...or two. I'd have nice things. I'd go on exotic vacations to Paris or Beijing. I'd come home to a community of friends who loved me. I'd host dinner parties. My married friends would invite me into their homes, and I'd be the cherished godfather to their children...or an uncle. Living a life of adventure surrounded by those I loved would dynamite the loneliness right out of my mind. I'd go to church, practice my faith, and serve others. This would bring an even greater richness to my already fabulous life. And then one day, in a posh, $7,500/month nursing home that served crab-meat omelettes and daily mimosas—while being surrounded by all my other widowed, Nintendo-playing, octogenarian buddies—I'd quietly pass away in my sleep, and be welcomed into glory by Jesus Himself.
Like I said, best case scenario.
But on most days, I pictured my future like Larry's...
Larry's a real person, but that's not his real name. I'm changing it here to protect his dignity. I met Larry a few years ago at a one-year old's birthday party in South Carolina.
The parents of the one-year old were friends of mine. I'd gone to high school with her and had gotten to know her husband pretty well since they'd gotten married. It was a Saturday in June when I drove to their home a couple hours north of Atlanta.
I love it when married friends invite me to their kids' birthday parties. This is pretty rare because I think married folks don't think their single friends want to hang out with toddlers on a Saturday. But that's not true for me. I consider it an honor.
My friend is super-creative and she'd gone all out decorating for this party—flowers and balloons and Pinterest-inspired, handmade decorations galore. They lived in a nice little renovated three-bedroom home in an older historic neighborhood on the edge of downtown. The party was a blast, and, per tradition, ended with the baby sitting in her highchair, wearing a party hat, cutely smashing her hands into the cake with family members breaking their thumbs in a frenzy to snap photos.
As the party wound down, I went back into the main living room and took a seat on the couch with several others.
After a few minutes, the front door opened and Larry walked in. He was a friend of theirs from down the street. Larry carried a cane and was heavy-set with a white scruffy beard. He was breathing heavily when he walked in and had clearly struggled to get up the few steps to their porch.
Larry got some food and came back to the living room, taking a seat in the chair next to me. We chatted for a bit, and I learned he was Catholic and had gone to a Catholic university many years before. He'd been living in that neighborhood for 65 years. Larry was nice but seemed sad. He seemed lonely.
Maybe half an hour after he arrived, Larry left—coughing heavily as he began his journey back home.
After he left, my friends told me more about him.
Larry wasn't in good health, so a lot of the young couples in the neighborhood helped take care of him. He was sorta the neighborhood charity...in a really kind, benevolent way.
My friend's husband told me that Larry's house was a mess and he'd gone over there once to help him clean it. He got there and discovered the whole house piled floor to ceiling with stuff...junk, really.
Larry was a hoarder.
He said there were little trails cut through the clutter, and that's how you got around the house.
My friend wasn't really sure where to start the clean-up process, but he noticed an open, half-eaten jar of peanut butter lying on the floor, so he decided to start there. As he turned to toss it in the trash, Larry snatched it out of his hand and rebuked him with a stern, "We can't throw that out!". He refused to part with his moldy peanut butter.
I turned to my friend and asked if he had any family who helped care for him.
"No," she said, "He has no one. He's never been married. It's really sad."
I looked down at my plate of birthday cake and took another bite.
"Wow...that is sad," I mumbled.
On my drive home from South Carolina, Larry's story pulsed in my mind.
I thought about time and aging. I thought about my future and my funeral.
I wondered if I'd be a Larry—a lonely, smelly invalid in my 70s—slogging around a suburban tomb of my own trash and delusions.
I wondered if I'd be the neighborhood charity project the younger folks secretly viewed as a nuisance.
I wondered if they'd be relieved when I died and if any of them would come to my funeral.
Then I wondered if anyone at all would be at my funeral.
And I wondered who would be my pallbearers and what funeral homes did for people who didn't have anyone to carry their casket. Like...do they have janitors or someone like that do it? Maybe temp workers? Or high school kids?
And then I stopped myself.
I stopped myself, realizing just how good I'd gotten at chronicling sad thoughts like this, at archiving them in my little filing cabinet of dread.
It is what it is, Brett. Move along.
I kept driving. Onward to Atlanta... 👊
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All photos by Sterling Graves. Copyright Blue Babies Pink & Sterling Graves.
B.T. Harman is the creator of Blue Babies Pink, a Southern Coming Out Story in 44 Episodes.
B.T. is a consultant, writer, and speaker living in Atlanta's historic Cabbagetown neighborhood. He was previously a vice president for Booster, an Atlanta fundraising company, where he helped the organization raise $150 million for elementary schools.
B.T. is passionate about storytelling, leadership, good design, Seth Godin, SEC football, Chick-fil-A, Taylor Swift, archaeology, European Travel and CS Lewis.
To learn more about B.T., visit his personal site at btharman.com.