Mystery Explored: How Did Elvis Die Really?

The world was shocked in August 1977 when Elvis Presley, the King of Rock and Roll, died at the age of just 42. Thousands of grieving fans headed to Graceland, the musician’s estate in Memphis, Tennessee, to pay their respects. In the wake of his death, an urban legend spread that he had died on the toilet. So, what really happened to Elvis and how did he pass away? 

August 16, 1977

On the afternoon of August 16, 1977, medics were called to the scene of Elvis’s home in Memphis. He had been found by his fiancée, Ginger Alden. She reported that earlier in the afternoon, he had told her, “I’m going to the bathroom to read.” When he didn’t emerge, she checked on him and found him unresponsive on the floor. 

Elvis Presley: News Report of his death - August 16, 1977

When medics arrived, they attempted to revive him; however, attempts were unsuccessful and he was declared dead at 3:30 p.m. It was estimated that he had already been dead for about an hour before emergency services arrived. Resuscitation was performed as a matter of routine because of his fame. 

The singer was found face-down on the bathroom floor; it is widely thought that he died while sitting on the toilet and fell. 

Health And Drug Abuse 

Over the last years of Elvis’ life, his health deteriorated significantly. Since the finalization of his divorce in 1973, it became increasingly clear that he was suffering from the effects of drug addiction. After several disastrous concerts in the early 1970s, his entourage begged him to cut back on touring, but he refused. 

In his final years, he developed serious health problems and became obese. He was diagnosed with high blood pressure, emphysema, glaucoma, problems with his liver, and an enlarged colon. He also suffered from hallucinations, likely caused by his drug abuse. He had difficulty sleeping and felt increasingly paranoid; he also had serious problems with constipation. 

Elvis Presley - Unchained Melody

He became addicted to drugs in the late 1960s, largely prescription opiates. His official cause of death was cardiac arrest, possibly caused by straining on the toilet. However, physicians were divided on whether his extensive and long-term drug abuse caused the heart attack that led to his death. 

The Autopsy And Publication

June 1, 1958 – Elvis Presley before he left to join the army. Image source: Uncredited, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Several weeks after Elvis’ death, his family requested a private autopsy. The results of this investigation were kept secret for several decades, leading to extensive speculation about the true cause of the singer’s death. 

The main question wasn’t just what caused his death, but also the role that his drug use played in it. 

The official cause was ruled as cardiac arrest; he appeared to have suffered a sudden and violent heart attack while using the bathroom. He had been suffering from chronic constipation, which can lead to heart attacks in some individuals due to straining. 

However, it was also noted that his system contained traces of 14 prescription drugs, most of which were opiates. The coroner ruled that at least ten of these were in his body in significant amounts. These included, among others, Dilaudid, codeine, Demerol, and Quaaludes. 

When the cause of death was released, Chief Medical Examiner Jerry Francisco seemed to prioritize the privacy of the Presley family. He put heart failure as the musician’s official cause of death and publicly stated that drug use did not play a role in his demise. At the time, details about his addiction were largely kept secret. Elvis’ family requested that the results of the autopsy remain sealed. 

It wasn’t until 1993 that investigations reopened into the cause of death; however, even then the autopsy itself was not published (though it would be accessed a year later in 1994). The coroner’s notes were shared, and these shed more light on the singer’s heart attack, suggesting that his drug use played a more significant role in his demise than had been publicized. 

Today, there are several theories on what could have caused Elvis’ heart attack. It could have been a result of excessive prescription medication use or a combination of a genetic heart condition and drug abuse. Some medical researchers have also suggested that the event could have been a reaction to prescription codeine, which can lead to cardiac arrest.

Next: The best Elvis songs of all time (playlist feature)


Elvis was buried in Forest Hill Cemetery in Memphis, Tennessee, on August 18, 1977. His funeral was held at Graceland, during which time more than 80,000 people poured onto the grounds. His body was interred next to his mother’s. Later in the month, an unknown thief attempted to steal his remains, leading to the exhumation of both Elvis and Gladys Presley. They were reburied in the Meditation Garden at Graceland in October 1977.

Elvis Funeral Procession Aug 18 1977

Elvis’ Physician And Aftermath 

In 1980, three years after Elvis died, his physician Dr. George Nichopoulos came under attention. He started treating the singer in 1967; during the last two years of his life, he prescribed him more than 12,000 pills. It was said that Elvis transported the substances in three suitcases. However, the doctor claimed that the drugs were for the musician’s entire crew. 

He also said that he started out prescribing Elvis substances for his various mental and physical ailments but eventually gave him whatever he asked for. The doctor also mentioned that this was because he worried that the singer would access the drugs from other, less safe dealers. 

Because of the results of the autopsy, which indicated that Elvis’ death was likely connected to his drug abuse, Dr. Nichopoulos temporarily lost his license. He was charged with 11 counts of indiscriminately prescribing drugs in 1981; these charges were later acquitted.

The End of The King

After Elvis’ death, rumors flew about his drug use and his death on the toilet, leading to urban legends. Decades later, there are no perfect answers about the circumstances surrounding his death; we still may never know exactly what health conditions or lifestyle choices caused his fatal heart attack. His death, however, hardly impacted his popularity; six of his posthumously-released tracks hit the Country Top 10 between 1977 and 1981.

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