Sunday, June 11, 2023

The Face of Pride and the Grave of Divine

Its Pride Month as I write this, June, 2023 – the celebration of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBTQ +) rights and culture. In honor of this, The New Yorker Magazine (June 12, 2023 issue) has this artwork on its front cover, entitled, “The Look of Pride,” a self-portrait by the artist Sasha Velour. Now, I don’t know if this is supposed to be an updated homage to drag queen Divine, but that’s immediately who I thought of when I found the mag in my mail slot the other day. I’m also using this cover shot as my lead photo since I can’t find any public domain images of film legend Divine! (Maybe if John Waters reads this he can send me a link to one...?)

At the end of April, 2023, I drove from Philly to the Baltimore area to attend the spring meeting of the Pennsylvania Chapter of the Association for Gravestone Studies. The meeting was held a bit north of Baltimore, in York, PA, at the Penn State Campus. The connection to Baltimore was a planned group trip after the morning presentations, to Druid Ridge Cemetery, which is on the northwest outskirts of Baltimore (Pikesville, MD). But this story is about the cemetery I stopped at on the way to York, a prequel.

When in Baltimore … 

I searched the internet for cemeteries to visit on the drive to York. I thought about taking I95 south to Havre de Grace, then heading northwest to York on the smaller roads there were some small graveyards to check out. Another option was to take I95 south to the Baltimore Beltway, head west to 83 north and up to York. A longer route, but probably more direct. Getting lost I can handle, but wasting time annoys me. So I checked on available cemeteries along the latter route. 

As I looked for cemeteries I’d never visited, I came across one called Prospect Hill Cemetery, near the intersection of 83 and the Beltway. I don’t usually go star hunting before a visit to any cemetery (I find that I miss out on more that way, lol!), i.e., to see if there are any notable people buried within. However, many of the links I followed for Prospect Hill Cemetery came up with the same, one notable burial there – Divine!

Divine in center
Yes! Divine, star of several John Waters films - you know, she played Tracy Turnblad’s mother Edna in “Hairspray.” Or maybe you don’t know. Divine is probably the world’s best known drag queen (my thirteen-year-old daughter believes that to be Ru Paul – but she’s wrong). So that sealed it for me – take I95 to the Beltway, get off at the Towson, Maryland exit and hit Divine’s grave. Or should I say the grave of Harris Glenn Milstead.

“Waters and I were not heading to a beach. Instead, we were going to Prospect Hill cemetery, where his longtime friend and early star of his films, Divine, is buried. Divine, aka Harris Glenn Milstead, a larger-than-life drag queen, died from a heart attack at the age of 42 in 1988, just a week after the premiere of Waters’s film Hairspray. Prospect Hill is also where Waters himself has a plot, as does his friend (and actor in many of his films) Mink Stole. “We call it Disgraceland,”….”

Several things on the internet intrigued me about the star’s grave, like the article from The Guardian quoted above. One item said that it is easy to find – in the lower area, with all the flowers and other decorations that fans leave. Prospect Hill is a relatively small cemetery and his grave would be the ONLY one adorned with visitors’ chalk-written messages on the stone. Another site showed photos of a sign the cemetery had placed, asking visitor’s to Divine’s grave to be respectful. I’ve visited a lot of cemeteries over the past two decades, and I do not recall EVER seeing a sign like this calling attention to a specific grave. Here’s what the sign says:

“Fans of Harris Glenn Milstead (“Divine”) are welcome in Prospect Hill Cemetery, but please be respectful of the impact of your visit on families who have loved ones buried nearby. Writing on or defacing a gravestone is illegal under Maryland law. Items left will be removed at the cemetery’s discretion. By all means, pay your respects to an iconic performer, but help preserve the dignity of this burial ground.”

So what sort of “items” might one find at Divine’s grave? The imagination wanders. Apparently, visitors leave “appropriate” mementos, which, if you’ve seen any of Waters’ films, these could be …. well, let’s let Mr. Waters explain:

According to a article from 2021:

“Divine’s grave is on the cemetery’s lower level, next to his parents’ grave. Waters’ lot is across a private road from Divine’s and slightly up a hill but still close by.

Waters has suggested that getting buried near Divine will make it convenient for their fans: One-stop grieving. 

He acknowledges that Divine’s admirers can be “a little misguided” in the way they sometimes behave at the cemetery.

“People do leave crazy stuff,” he said in a talk organized by Literati Bookstore in Michigan. “I said to the graveyard: Wait ‘til I get there.” 


Raining in Disgraceland

When I arrived in the vicinity of the cemetery, I was surprised to see that it was in a densely congested retail area, with the cemetery hidden on a hill overlooking the stores on Dulaney Valley Road. It was easy enough finding the cemetery entrance with Google Maps on my smartphone. Prospect Hill is an elegant yet relatively small spot – it would take you two minutes to drive through it. The single one-way paved road snakes through the upper level, then down through the lower one, and out the exit. Its been here since 1893 and there are many old gravemarkers among the new ones. The brightly-blooming azaleas presented a rather cheery accent to this heavily wooded setting in the light rain. 

Rear view of Divine's gravemarker

I wasn’t seeing any gaudily decorated stones as I drove through the lower level, so I checked Google Maps for “Divine’s Grave.” Sometimes this works. And it did. Just over there on the right, about fifty feet away. I pulled over, parked, and approached what thought must be Divine's grave - there appeared to be a small sign and some things around the stone. The light rain stayed mercifully light during my visit. 

Turned out to be the one. Divine's stone did have some small decorations around it - some plastic flowers and, of course, pink flamingoes - tastefully situated around the base. The grounds were quiet, no one else there.

Plastic dog poo at base of Divine's grave stone

So what else did I find at Divine’s grave? Nothing terribly outlandish. I mean, you WOULD expect to find a ring of brown plastic dog poo, right? And I did. Everything’s relative. If I have to explain, I’d rather just direct you to watch the movie, “Pink Flamingos.” And as Mr. Waters has stated during the wonderful Q & A section in his standup live performances, “In answer to everyone’s first question, ‘yes,’ Divine really did that.” Yet another reason why Divine’s legend will live on. 

There were three plastic pink flamingos in front of the stone – one of which had it’s butt cut off and stuffed with Styrofoam to accommodate a makeshift makeup kit. There were beads and coins, and some worn chalk messages on the face of the stone. Some crystals, some earrings. 

The makeup kit was a rather clever memento to leave. Divine’s unique makeup is iconic (click here for examples, and I would think in some way influenced Sasha Velour’s artwork on the cover of the New Yorker. It is interesting to note that the John Waters movies Divine starred in – Pink Flamingos, Polyester, Female Trouble, Multiple Maniacs, Hairspray – were made in the 1970s and 80s, eras when flamboyantly made up drag queens were not quite as acceptable as they are today. (Oh, I am going to get SO much feedback for that last sentence!). But if you search the internet for photos of Divine, that face literally BEAMS with pride, does it not? The title of Velour’s self-portrait can just as well describe Divine’s countenance, “The Look of Pride.” So, hats off to Harris Glenn Milstead for taking such great risks and by doing so, becoming immortal.

Custom makeup kit at Divine's grave

I didn’t leave anything at Divine’s grave, but I did come away with a greater appreciation for Milstead’s art. I’ve long been a fan of John Waters and his work, but I hadn’t fully appreciated Divine’s role in all that. They both pushed boundaries that forced people to think differently about the world around them.

After paying my respects, I took a walk up the hill, thinking I might see a stone engraved with the name, “Waters,” but saw no such thing. Maybe John bought the plot, but not yet the stone. Or the stone is there, but not yet engraved. I can’t imagine it will say, “America’s Filth Elder,” but, who knows? It may pay to visit around Christmas, if you’re in the area:

“Waters himself is a regular visitor to the grave site, especially around the holidays, when he and Baltimore casting agent Pat Moran annually carry in a decorated tree. "Divine was a Christmas fanatic," he explains.” -

And speaking of Christmas, I'll leave you with this item. As I was searching the internet for public domain images of Divine, this is what immediately popped up on my computer screen: