When fans visit the grave of Divine, the drag performer who rose to fame in filmmaker John Waters’ cult classics, they can expect to find a variety of items left in his memory: plastic pink flamingos; costume jewelry; high heels; beer; vodka; tubes of lipstick and empty palettes of eyeshadow.
In the past, it has been common to find the praying hands on the gravestone painted with fingernail polish, or to see the marker smeared with messages that appear to be insulting, such as: “Tracy Turnblad is a Whore;” “Trash Royalty;” and “The Filthiest Person Alive.”
But those who visit Harris Glenn Milstead’s grave in Towson this summer will find something new: A sign with a message just for them:
“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,” the sign states.
“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.”
The black and white sign appears next to the headstone that marks the grave where Divine was laid to rest following his sudden death from heart failure in 1988. He died at 42 and would be 75 today.
It’s the first time the cemetery has posted a sign specifically mentioning Divine, or anyone who is buried there. It comes just a few months before the performer’s birthday on October 19 — always peak visitation time at Divine’s grave – and it has drawn mixed reactions from his fans.
Some see a veiled threat in the reference to “Maryland law.” Have security cameras been installed? Would the cemetery really prosecute people who come to pay their respects?
Others have no problem with the reminder to “be respectful” and “help preserve the dignity of this burial ground.”
And the area does look cleaner this summer, with the gravestone newly scrubbed of fingernail polish and obscenities scrawled in lipstick or black magic marker. If nothing else, the freestanding sign helps visitors find Divine’s grave amid all the others.
“People have mixed views of how graves should be treated, especially when you’re talking about someone as iconic as Divine,” said Noah Brodie, the California-based CEO of Divine Official Enterprises LLC., an organization created with Divine’s family to administer his estate and help keep his memory alive.
“I compare it to something along the lines of Jim Morrison’s grave, where people do come and leave things and they do mark the headstone. I think it’s a real polarizing kind of thing. Some people think it’s OK. Some people think it’s absolutely not OK.”
Brodie said he’s on the fence about how people behave at Divine’s grave.
“I get it because I understand that people want to come and pay their respects,” he said. “I know some people look at the writing on the headstone as defacing or desecrating the land there. Others look at it as celebrating Divine’s career. I see both sides of it.”
The changes came after an admirer of Divine’s offered money to restore the gravestone.
“A fan paid to have the grave cleaned, which we thought was lovely,” Waters said. “The Divine estate approved and I did too.”
Waters admits that he brings gifts to leave at Divine’s grave when he visits, and he looks to see what others bring.
“Every time I go I see different little things that are left,” he said. “People leave makeup. People leave dresses. I’ve seen shoes. I’ve seen lots of little offerings…It’s very respectful.”
Waters said the words that people wrote in the past have tended to be lines from his movies, and fans of Divine recognize that. But to people who were visiting another grave and weren’t familiar with his movies, he said, they could be taken the wrong way.
“There’s never anything written that’s actually hateful or awful,” he said. “Even when they write, ‘The Filthiest Person Alive’ [a reference to Divine’s character in Pink Flamingos], and that kind of stuff, it’s all meant in the right way. But someone might not know that who doesn’t know the movie.”
Some time ago, he said, “somebody wrote ‘Satan.’ And my friend Pat Moran said, they really meant ‘satin.’ They spelled it wrong.”
Brodie said no one has damaged the gravestone, to his knowledge. He said the closest he’s heard about anyone disturbing anything at the cemetery is a report that someone was selling “dirt from Divine’s grave” on eBay, but that turned out to be a hoax.
“Divine’s grave was in fine condition,” he said. “This guy was totally scamming people on eBay, digging dirt out of his own backyard.”
By all accounts, Brodie said, the tributes left to Divine have all been well-meaning.
“It’s homage, it’s celebratory,” he said. “It’s always been love and support for Divine and his career.”
Visitors don’t always know what to make of the writing and offerings they see at Divine’s grave, said Carolyn Parker Knott, President of Prospect Hill Cemetery of Towson Inc., the not-for-profit organization that owns and operates the burial grounds.
Some of the gifts can be very expensive, she said, including a pair of fire engine red, spiked-heel Jimmy Choo shoes that someone left for Divine.
It becomes a problem when people write on a gravestone, she said. “That’s illegal in the state of Maryland. That’s defacing property, and there was a lot of stuff written on that grave. Front, back, top. Some of the language was offensive. Some of it was artistic. I can’t really say any of it was clever. You’ve been in the cemetery. You know that’s not who we are. And for all the other families, it can be offensive.”
Knott said Divine’s gravestone is the only one at the cemetery that has ever been marked. She likened the writing to graffiti on a building and said the cemetery has received comments about it.
“Think of when another family nearby has a burial,” she said. “How disgusting is that for them to be standing at a burial and you’re looking at graffiti?”
The cemetery management also has a liability issue to consider, she said.
When Divine’s mother, Frances Milstead, was buried close to Divine in 2009, a couple of mourners “decided to sprawl across the top of Divine’s gravestone to have their photo taken,” she recalled. “Well, that’s dangerous. These monuments weigh well over 1000 pounds. Some of the big ones weigh a ton and if they shift, a person could be seriously injured. This is nothing to fool around with, besides not being respectful…We stopped them because they could have endangered themselves.”
Gift from Alabama
Knott said Divine is the most-visited figure at the cemetery, and people come throughout the year from as far away as Australia. She said the fan who donated money for the cleanup lives in Alabama.
Under Maryland law, she said, cemetery managers aren’t allowed to alter a gravestone, even to clean it up, without consent from a representative of the person who’s buried there. She said she consulted both Brodie and Waters and received permission to use the fan’s donation as intended.
The work entailed hiring a stone monument restoration specialist to take off markings without damaging the granite headstone — a process not unlike removing graffiti.
Knott said Prospect Hill has never prosecuted anyone for defacing a grave to her knowledge, and she hopes it never has to. She said the cemetery installed the sign in an effort to deter visitors from marking Divine’s gravestone in the future.
“The purpose of the sign is stated in its message,” she said. “We’re asking people to be respectful of all those buried in the cemetery and to follow the law.”
Some people don’t even realize Maryland has laws governing behavior in cemeteries, she said. “It’s a good reminder to everyone to be respectful of all graves.”
Brodie said he understands why the sign went up, given the number of people who visit Divine’s grave.
“We’re probably exceeding anything that they would have anticipated, but there are pros and cons to that,” he said. “The cemetery has certainly become iconic and it’s definitely a travel destination…But there is also the additional burden on the cemetery of all that traffic and the materials that are left behind and the messages inscribed on the headstone.”
Prospect Hill has a responsibility to think of all the people who are buried there, he said. “The cemetery is trying to protect the integrity of the other plots, for when families come and visit.”
Going to ‘Disgraceland’
Waters wrote about Prospect Hill Cemetery, and the traffic Divine’s grave gets, in his latest book, “Mr. Know-It-All: The Tarnished Wisdom of a Filth Elder.”
He said he plans to be buried there, too, along with other Dreamlanders – friends who worked with him on his movies, including Moran and Nancy Stoll, aka Mink Stole. “It’s a great graveyard,” he writes. “And it’s right where we grew up.”
In Mr. Know-It-All, the filmmaker shows a copy of the receipt he got for the burial lots he purchased there, and he approaches the subject with humor and aplomb. He says it’s shaping up to be “a little Disgraceland” and calls it “a new concept in death. Who gets buried with their friends but us?”
Waters also has thrown out the idea of being buried in Prospect Hill Cemetery for nine months of the year and then having his remains moved to Provincetown every summer, since that’s where he spends the summers now.
Knott suggests that Waters consider importing sand from Provincetown to be part of his grave at Prospect Hill and that might take away any urge to move back and forth. She said her mother is buried at Prospect Hill but adored Ocean City and is “resting on Ocean City sand.” If Waters wants to be close to Provincetown for eternity, she said, “it makes perfect sense to me.”
In addition to Pink Flamingos (1972), Divine appeared in Roman Candles (1966); Eat Your Makeup (1968): The Diane Linkletter Story (1969); Mondo Trasho (1969); Multiple Maniacs (1970); Female Trouble (1974); Polyester (1981) and Hairspray (1988) – all Waters films, usually with Divine in drag and playing an outsider or renegade.
Divine branched out to appear in the plays Women Behind Bars and The Neon Woman and movies such as Lust in the Dust and Trouble in Mind. Performing in drag, he also embarked on a singing career at the height of the disco era. After he died in 1988, People magazine named him ‘The Drag Queen of the Century.’
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.”
Prospect Hill is a non-denominational cemetery and a Baltimore County landmark, with an entrance near where York Road meets Washington Avenue in Towson. It was founded in 1892 and has more than 3,000 documented graves on six acres, with 250 gravesites still available for purchase. Visiting hours are from dawn to dusk.
Prospect Hill Cemetery of Towson Inc. is the fifth owner, run by a volunteer board. People buried in the cemetery range from founders of county government to ministers, war veterans, doctors and business owners, from immigrants to landed gentry. The list includes at least one former Baltimore Colt, Joe Campanella, and a convicted felon-turned-author named Malcolm Braly who spent 17 years in San Quentin State Prison and wrote a prison novel called “Felony Tank” that later inspired a movie.
The cemetery does not have records on the number of visitors, but fans estimate it is at least in the hundreds spread over the year. Two of the busiest days, they say, are the anniversary of Divine’s birthday, October 19, and the anniversary of the day he died, March 7.
An especially busy birthday was in 2015, when Divine would have turned 70 and WTMD radio organized a ‘Birthday Tribute’ a block away, with music, a psychic and reenactments of Divine’s most famous movie scenes. Knott said the Baltimore County police are “wonderful” about keeping an eye on the cemetery and Divine’s grave in particular.
Five years or $10,000
Maryland law provides for a fine of up to $10,000 and/or imprisonment for up to five years for anyone convicted of “willfully destroying, mutilating, defacing, injuring or removing any tomb, monument, gravestone or other structure placed in a cemetery or any building, wall, fence, railing or other work for the use, protection or ornamentation of any cemetery.”
Waters said he doesn’t think Divine’s fans could be prosecuted for defacing Divine’s grave. He said defacing to him implies acting with malice, and he doesn’t believe that applies to Divine’s fans.
“I don’t think any of us would call that defacing,” he said. “Defacing is when you write something hateful on it. To me they were tributes. Even if anybody wrote anything obscene on the grave, it was a tribute. It was never meant as a slur in any possible way. I’ve never seen one thing there so far that was written that wasn’t in honor of Divine, even if it was obscene.”
Waters and Knott both noted that visitors are still permitted to leave objects at Divine’s grave as long as they don’t disturb the grounds, mark the headstone or offend others.
“We just have to also listen to the people who have graves right next door to it, that maybe when they go to put flowers down they don’t feel like reading” obscenities, Waters said. “So I just ask the people who come to be respectful to the neighbors.”
Knott said groundskeepers will remove food and lipstick and objects that might get in the way of grass cutting, but items such as plastic pink flamingos are fine. “We’re always going to leave pink flamingos” at Divine’s grave, she said. “Perfectly harmless. Totally appropriate. What do you think of with Divine? Pink flamingos.”
Brodie agrees with Waters that Divine’s fans aren’t malicious.
“These are people expressing their gratitude for Divine,” he said. “They’re not going to come and knock over headstones. It’s not that kind of crowd.”
‘Large pilgrimage site’
Brodie predicts that Prospect Hill Cemetery will get even more visitors when more of the Dreamlanders are there – something he hopes doesn’t happen for a long time.
“At some point it’s going to become a large pilgrimage site,” he said. “Depending on how they handle it, it could be a really good thing for the cemetery and just for that little local economy right there around the cemetery, people coming and going to the stores and doing their thing…Once you add John and Pat and all of them to the mix, it’s going to become more and more busy.”
The stream of visitors who come to Divine’s grave is a testament to the movies he and Waters made 50 years ago, he said.
“Here we are, half a century after these films have been released,” he marveled. “It goes to show how iconic John and Divine are.”
My grandmother, Sarah Jane Burke
Mudd, is buried near Devine. Born in 1885, she sadly passed away in 1985. She would have loved him!
Hope they are Partying together 🙂 X
they need a guestbook of sorts so folks can leave comments without defacing the stone.
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