Cemetery Recipes: Mom’s Christmas Cookies

Christmas time is almost here! For me, Christmas is synonymous with holiday baking! What better time of year to warm the house with the sweet smell of cookies in the oven? So, I thought it’s the perfect time to try out another tombstone recipe. I have been saving this one specifically for this time of year—Mom’s Christmas Cookies. 

This cookie recipe can be found on the backside of a beautiful, large black marble tombstone. This is the gravestone of Maxine Menster.1 It can be found in Cascade Cemetery, in Cascade Iowa. The front of the stone has a beautiful sand-blasted winter scene, of a lovely detached house surrounded by forest. You can view the front of the stone on Maxine’s memorial page on Find A Grave.

Maxine’s family wanted to do something special to remember their mother and chose the sweetest way—with the family sugar cookie recipe. Jane Menster, Maxine’s daughter has said that when they were trying to think of something specific to her mother to put on her stone, “It was her cookies.”2 

Maxine passed away in 1994, so this recipe has marked her grave for decades. According to Atlas Obscura, this recipe was part of a long-standing family tradition, where they would bake this cookie recipe on Christmas Eve, then hang the sugar cookies on the Christmas tree. They would be an early morning treat on Christmas Day.3

Here’s the recipe:

Mom’s Christmas Cookies

Cream:

  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1/2 cup oleo

Add:

  • 2 beaten eggs
  • 1 tsp. vanilla

Add:

  • 3 cups flour
  • 3 tsp. baking powder
  • 1 tsp. salt

Add alternately with 1 cup cream.

Chill and roll out with flour.

Bake 350 degrees oven, and frost.

Most tombstone recipes use short form when it comes to the instructions. Instead of turning to Google, I thought I would ask my Mom. We went through the recipe together and talked about each step, and how long to chill the dough. My mom is an avid baker, especially at this time of year. We had a nice chat about baking instructions and tombstone recipes in general. I have yet to find a Canadian one. 

I was also surprised to find out that my mom was familiar with the tradition of baking cookies to put on the tree for Christmas morning. It’s not something we ever did when I was growing up. We also had dogs. She recounted a story about putting candy canes in the tree one year and coming home one day to find the tree on the floor. My dog Shadow had gotten a little too excited about finding candy in the tree. No foodstuffs ever went into our tree after that. 

After our chat, I got to baking cookies! This recipe is very straightforward. There is one ingredient that some people might question, the 1/2 cup of oleo. What is oleo? Turns out that it is just an older term for margarine. Mixing everything was a breeze and didn’t take that long at all. The biggest question I had about the recipe was how long to chill the dough. My Mom had suggested an hour. After an hour in the fridge, I got to work on cutting out the shapes. 

I am not a traditional Christmas person and don’t actually own any Christmas cookie cutters. I choose to go with a skull, tombstone, and bat for my shapes. I also didn’t have any frosting on hand, so instead, I opted to use sprinkles. My usual go-to for baking is cupcakes, so I have a lot of sprinkles on hand—just not Christmas ones. So I used black sanding sugar, red and black nonpareils, black bats, and purple, red and black sprinkles. 

I left the cookies in the oven for about 10-14 minutes and ended up baking 4 trays of cookies. This recipe makes a pretty big batch.

They turned out delicious! I think this will be my go-to sugar cookie recipe moving forward. They are very easy to make and so tasty, especially right out of the oven. I ate way more of them off the cookie sheet than I should have, but I just couldn’t resist. I also really enjoyed making this recipe because it prompted some good conversations with my Mom. Usually, when I make tombstone recipes, I talk out loud to the deceased, talking through the recipe. This time around it made more sense to talk about Mom’s Christmas cookies with my own Mom.

Thank you, Maxine, and the Menster family for sharing this delicious recipe with the world!

Have you made this recipe before? Or do you have a go-to Christmas cookie recipe? I would love to hear about it in the comments. 

Thanks for reading!


References:

  1. Maxine Kathleen Poppe Menster | Find a Grave
  2. Family cookie recipe stands the test of time | The Gazette
  3. The Menster Christmas Cookie Gravestone | Atlas Obscura

Stories in the Stones: An online course by Atlas Obscura 

Last Sunday was my last session of Stories in the Stones with Dr. Elise Ciregna. I enjoyed this course so much and wanted to share my experience and thoughts with you. I met some interesting and like-minded people and learned some very interesting things about cemeteries and gravestones. The last four weeks have been filled with presentations, discussions, readings, and visiting cemeteries, so I thought writing about it would be a great way to cap off the experience.

Stories in the Stones is a four-part seminar with Dr. Elise Ciregna. Dr. Elise is a historian specializing in social, visual, and material culture. She has a master’s degree in the history of art and architecture from Harvard University.1 She has worked for historic cemeteries and is the former President of the Association for Gravestone Studies. Elise is a fountain of knowledge and shares it eagerly. I enjoyed getting to know her over these last four weeks. There were 14 people in my seminar, all connected by a love and interest in cemeteries, and all with varying backgrounds. It was great to meet other taphophiles. 

The course is broken down into 4 sessions:

  • The Colonial and Early National Period: Stones and Crossbones
  • The Nineteenth Century The Rural Cemetery Movement and the Age of Marble
  • Cemeteries as Spaces for Specific Communities
  • The Twentieth Century to the Present + Genealogical Research.1

Everything was done over Zoom and Google Classroom. I have never used Google Classroom before but it didn’t take long to figure out its functionality. Dr. Elise posted all her slides there, as well as resources, suggested readings, and the optional homework. I didn’t get a chance to read all the suggested readings during the duration of the course, but I found the readings I did have a chance to read, helpful to follow along with the slides. I plan to finish the suggested readings, as well as follow up with the other resource links that were provided. I also enjoyed the homework assignments, although I didn’t share them with the class. We did have the opportunity to share, either before the class presentation or in Google Classroom. The optional homework was a great tool to further my understanding of the material.

As I mentioned before, I enjoyed this course immensely. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect going into it, being a Canadian in an American-based course, but I found all the information interesting and useful. Elise expertly walked us through the history and evolution of gravestone symbols, the background of stone carvers, as well as the evolution and distinctions between different types of cemeteries. Not only is Dr. Elise a repository of information and experience with historic cemeteries, but she also loves to share that knowledge. If you have a question that she doesn’t know the answer to, she will take the time to try and find the answers.

I feel that I truly learned a lot from this course. After just the first session, I visited some cemeteries with some friends and found myself putting the teachings into action, by explaining symbols and tombstone attributes to my friends. They joked that now they didn’t need to take the course. My only complaints are that it was too short! I feel like they could have added a couple of extra sessions to delve into some of the subjects, like specific community cemeteries. I also would have liked to get a certificate of completion at the end. I personally think it would have been fun to have and frame for my wall.

So, if you have been thinking about signing up for this course, here is your sign! Taphophiles, historians, and genealogists alike will find something interesting in this course. Regardless if you have a little or a lot of knowledge of gravestone studies, I think you would learn something new and love this course.

Have you taken this course? Did you enjoy it? I would love to read about your experience in the comments.

Thanks for reading! 


References:

  1. Stories in the Stones: How to Read a Gravestone With Dr. Elise M. Ciregna

Online courses for Taphophiles

I have always considered myself a lifelong learner, I love taking online courses. I have taken some interesting ones over the years, like Society, Science, Survival: Lessons from AMC’s “The Walking Dead”. During the pandemic, online courses have become pretty popular, and you can find all sorts of online courses offered. The topics can vary, from more regular academic offerings to the more obscure. I remember once taking an online course on Stereoscopy: An Introduction to Victorian Stereo Photography. That was an interesting course. It got me wondering if there were cemetery-related courses available out there? That is something I feel like I can always learn more about.

I have spent some time browsing Atlas Obscura for unique places to visit and found that they offer in-person and virtual courses. They just so happen to offer an online course I think would be perfect for taphophiles. It’s called Stories in the Stones: How to Read a Gravestone With Dr. Elise M. Ciregna. Here is the course description, from the website:

“Have you ever wondered why certain gravestones and funerary monuments look the way they do? In this course, Dr. Elise M. Ciregna will explore how to decipher the stories in these stones, drawing from foundational knowledge of cemeteries and material culture. Over the course of four sessions, we’ll trace the history of burying grounds, cemeteries, and gravestones in the United States, focusing on a different period of American history each week. We’ll cover Puritan and Colonial practice and African American burying grounds through to the impact of cremation on contemporary American burial practice. In between, we’ll touch upon the advent of the garden cemetery movement, the 19th century romance of cemeteries, the cemetery beautiful movement of the early 20th century, and the 20th-century changes in cemetery management—looking at common motifs and stone cutting techniques as we go. By the end of this course, you’ll have the tools to engage with gravestones in a new way, the foundations for doing genealogical research, as well as a new lens through which to understand American society, culture, and values through time.” – Atlas Obscura

It sounds super interesting! There are currently 2 month-long sessions being offered, April (every Saturday) and May (every Sunday). I’ve registered for the May session and am looking forward to it. I’m hoping it will help fill the gap until I can regularly get out to visit cemeteries.

This next course I found is specifically for Clyde River & Area cemeteries in Prince Edward Island. It’s a free, self-directed course created by the Clyde River History Committee, called Cemetery Stories: Online Study SeriesThis course is not currently running, but since it’s self-directed and the materials are well laid out, I think it’s possible to work your way through the course. It looks like this online course was created to replace their regular lecture series during the COVID-19 pandemic. The course was held from November 2020 – to August 2021, but the course materials can still be found online. The materials include links to online resources, videos, and reading material. It also includes a breakdown of the activities. Some activities look to be specific to the Clyde River & Area cemeteries, but I think the resources they provide would be interesting to any taphophile. 

The last course I found is called Cemetery Symbols, through the Brooklyn Brainery. This course is not currently running, but you can sign up for the mailing list to get notified the next time it’s offered. It sounds very interesting, as it focuses on one of my favorite subjects: symbolism, and iconography in cemeteries. I would love to take this course the next time it’s offered. Here is the course description from the website: 

“Have you found some recent solace in visiting your local cemetery or ever wondered what those symbols etched in the tombstones say about the deceased? Sure, the skulls and winged hourglasses are ominously straightforward, but along with them are secret society emblems, carefully chosen flowers, gesturing hands, guardian animals, and other arcane symbols. This class will explore the meaning behind the symbols commonly found in cemeteries, along with their history in mortuary art, highlighting symbols found in NYC and beyond, so that the next time you go for a stroll in the necropolis you can decipher their hidden meanings.” – Brooklyn Brainery

It’s not a very long list, but that’s all I could find in my most recent search. I think I may revisit this in the future and share other courses I can find. I would love to see more courses become available. There are so many interesting cemetery-related topics that I think can be expanded upon, and would love to learn more about. I would love to see courses exploring the history of historic graveyards, notable graves, death and funerary practices through the ages, and even stone carvers and their materials. There is just so much that can be explored. For the moment I am looking forward to Atlas Obscura’s Stories in the Stones course, my first class is on May 1. I’m hoping it will be informative and that I will learn a new thing or two. I may write another post after the course is done, to share my thoughts, any AHA moments I have, and whether I would recommend the course or not. 

Have you taken some interesting online courses? Or do you know of a cemetery-related course that I missed? I would love to hear about it in the comments.

Thanks for reading!