Eighteen thousand admirers of Elvis Presley stood for hours, many with babies in their arms or children on their backs, to pay their last respects to the country boy from Mississippi who for years dominated American pop culture.

The singer, who died Tuesday of heart illness at his Memphis house, will be buried Thursday in the mausoleum of Forest Hill Cemetery, not far from the grave of his mother, Gladys, whom he adored.

Flags were lowered to half staff throughout much of the South, Major radio stations were reported planning a moment of silence at the time of his funeral Thursday. President Carter lauded Presley as a symbol of America's "vitality, rebelliousness and good humor."

Today his body was laid in a steel-lined copper coffin in the entrance hall of Graceland, a wooded estate in a part of town otherwise devoted to quick food shops, gas stations and loan offices.

One by one, the city's major downtown hotels have closed in recent years but the city abounds in motels. Holiday Inns reported all 11 of its Memphis motels booked solid.

Avis car rentals said there were no rental cars available in the city until Thursday night.

Switchboard operators warned of probable delays in getting long-distance calls out of Memphis.

Outside the white pillared house on Elvis Presley Bouelvard, thousands of people began arriving before noon, though it was 5 p.m. eastern time before any were admitted through the front door.

Outside, the noise was distracting as dozens of police coaxed two street lanes on humanity onto the already packed sidewalks, which were already jammed solid for 10 blocks.Loudspeakers and normal crowd noises made a depressing start for a pilgrimage, which is what this event was for many.

A 12-year-old from Dallas were big blue eyes, Rene Morris, lost her father in the crowd. She said her mother had loved Elvis before her, and had waited to see him off at the station when military duty took him to Germany in the late 1950s.

"She was in a crowd just like this," said the girl.

Not quite. Several dozen fainted in the heat though the skies hung with dark clouds lending a curious brilliance to grass and trees which looked unspeakably luminous.

"Please let the ambulances through," cried the police every few minutes. An inspector said there were no serious cases and marveled at the orderliness of the crowd. It was surprising not to see tempers flare or occasional hostile shoves during the long wait.

"There is not going to be a mad rush through those gates," said a policeman and sure enough there was not. Every time 50 or 100 were let in, the great sea surged forward so that all bodies touched and all the babies and toddlers were scared and began to cry.

Radios in the crowd were tuned to stations playing his music. Before the crush became too sever, those who waited at the gates weaved flowers through the iron guitar and musical notes adorning them.

"I think of my first love when I hear his songs," sobbed Sandra McMahan, 32, who caught a plane from Birmingham when she heard the news that Presley was dead. "I was a hell-raising teenager when he was," she told United Press International.

But once inside, after a wait from three to six hours, people went single file up the three-block long driveway beneath the old oaks.

To the left was a pen for the press, few of whom seemed to be going to the house, and to the right was a square of lawn on which several dozen women who felt faint were lying down, while friends gave them cool water.

Up the slight rise to the house, between gold ropes, the tremendous crowd walked swiftly and for the most part silently. There were flowers along the way sent in tribute from admirers around the world.

In front of the columned portico, flowers were massed to each side in brilliant colors.

The front doors were fixed open, flanked by the flags of the United States and Tennessee, and the red carpet of the entrance hall was covered with heavy white canvas of the sort used for church weddings.

Visitors filed in one by one at a normal walking pace, passed the gold swags of the draperies that hung over the side doors and found themselves in front of the coffin, which was open and which had a strong emotional effect on many.

He was dressed in a white silk suit, white cravat and blue shirt. About every tenth person began to weep.

Mary Murphy of Memphis, supported by her mother and a friend, cried uncontrollably when a UPI reporter approached her. She had fainted at least once before getting through the gates to view the body.

"Please don't say he was fat," she gasped. "They made him look fat in the coffin. People must know he doesn't look like this." Then, clutching at a pendant with a picture of Presley on it, she said "He looks like this."

On the way out people were thoughtful.

"Oh, he don't look real," said a woman.

Bobby Davis, a 38-year-old instructor at a trade school who had gone to high school with Presley, said he was just one of a million fans. He used to live on Alabama Street in Memphis when Presley did, he said, and he grew up in Pontotoc, Miss., a few miles from the singer's childhood home in Tupelo. Also like Presley, he plays the guitar and sings country rock. "But I never did make it big."

Mark Gordon, 17, who enters Northwest Mississippi College at Senatobia this fall, said shyly that he had always liked Presley, he did not know why.

But the man in the apartment next to him, he said, actually knew Presley and was himself a singer and guitarist.

"Last night he was up all night playing his guitar right through the night. I guess he took it hard."

Five per cent of the crowd appeared to be black but the closeness of those who had come was such that it required a conscious effort to notice race.

Julia Wilson with her granddaughter, Jada, 4, said, "I never made it to any of his concerts but I made it to all his movies. I think what I liked was he seemed such a nice person."

Earl Smith, a security guard for film festivals, said after leaving the house, "It was mighty young to die."

"I don't know as I agree," said Cordell Hull Sloan, a retired lawyer who farms out from Memphis. "I don't think it's how long a man lives, but what he does with his time. Elvis made his mark."

On the raod, where the trucks and cars were approaching rush-hour density, he turned suddenly and said:

"Things like this can't help making you think what a little time there is."