THE shock announcement came early one August morning. Within hours of the news of the death, people were taking to the streets; many were weeping openly. Flowers were laid in tribute by the thousand. With equal speed, the rumour mill began churning: the media were asking if there was more to the death than the authorities were admitting.
That, however, is not a description of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, in 1997, but of Elvis Presley in 1977. “The King” and the princess both died in the same month almost exactly 20 years apart, and the public response to the two events was very similar.
Elvis is remembered every year in ritual and pilgrimage. Tens of thousands of Elvis fans converge on the star’s Graceland home in Memphis, Tennessee, on the anniversary of his death, to hold an all-night vigil. They process through the grounds and around the Presley graves, carrying candles in silent prayer. For many, it is the highlight of a year of Elvis devotion. In their homes, they have shrines to Elvis. They treasure souvenirs as if they were holy relics. They attend Elvis tribute concerts where an Elvis lookalike serves as a priest of the church.
Over time, these concerts have taken on a formal shape. They include a quasi-communion rite when scarves and kisses are distributed in place of bread and wine.
Elvis has been the subject of several academic conferences and university courses. Students of modern religious movements describe visits to Graceland as pilgrimages, and study the messages and prayers to Elvis written on the wall outside the grounds. They read deep meaning into the words and actions of the Elvis tribute concerts. It is argued that within the song “An American Trilogy”, invariably sung on such occasions, a theology of Elvis has evolved which echoes the theology of incarnation, suffering, and triumph to be found in Christianity.
On the wackier fringe of Elvis fandom, he is viewed as the true messiah. I have seen an Elvis Christmas card showing Jesus on his knees paying homage to the singer. I once visited a fan who had moved to live in Memphis after what she described as an intense Elvis conversion experience. She showed me a room in her house where a huge poster of Jesus faced one of Elvis. To her, they were one and the same.
After the death of Elvis, it took a few years for the quasi-religious practices associated with him to take shape and become established. It helped that the Presley estate was also actively developing Graceland as a visitor attraction. Since then, the growth in Elvis devotion has been steady; a new generation, who never knew Elvis alive, are becoming involved and getting to know his music through remixes and reissues of his recordings.
THE posthumous devotion to Diana has not reached the same cultic intensity, but there are nevertheless fans for whom the magic and memory of “the people’s princess” have not faded.
On 31 August this year, to mark the 20th anniversary, her followers will most probably gather outside Kensington Palace, as they have done regularly since her death. They will leave flowers, and tie cards and prayers to the wrought-iron gates. The prayers will address Diana as “Queen of Hearts” and “Queen of Heaven”. The iconography and many of the words will be borrowed from the Roman Catholic tradition of devotion to Mary.
At present, the hardcore Dianaphiles, unlike the Elvis fans, are numbered in their hundreds, not thousands. As with Elvis fans, a few have shrines to Diana in their homes, and they treasure mementoes of her life, and light candles in her honour. Yet, already a theology of Diana is emerging. She is viewed as the feminine expression of the God of the New Age.
As with Elvis, the mockers are active. Yet within a year of her death, a virtual Church of Diana was created on the internet. More seriously, there are now several mediums who claim to receive messages from Diana, and there have been several repeated sightings of the princess in ethereal form as an angel of mercy.
IT REMAINS to be seen whether a Diana cult will follow the same pattern of growth as the Elvis “religion”. To date, the parallels between the two have been close, but there is no certainty that the memories of either 20th-century celebrity will survive as long-term religious movements.
Certainly religions tend to begin by adherents’ gathering together to perform rituals. In the early days of Christianity, the disciples came together to break bread as a way of remembering their leader and friend. There was no New Testament to study, and the Nicene Creed was not formulated for another three centuries.
But, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and through the courage of the early believers, Christianity took root. The Elvis and Diana pseudo-religions may survive several generations, but I suspect that they will eventually go the way of the many hundreds of other religious movements of previous centuries, which once flourished, but have now been all but forgotten.