At his home in Washington, DC, Charlie McBride often bakes his mother’s recipe for peach cobblers. As he pours the topping over the fruit, he recalls his mother, aunts and grandmother sitting under a tree in Louisiana and gushed to each other’s stories as they peeled peaches into cans for the winter.
McBride loved this family recipe so much that after the death of his mother O’Neal Bogan Watson in 2005, he had it etched on her headstone in New Ebenezer Cemetery in Castor, Louisiana, a town of about 230 people. His mother’s instructions were simple: bake the cobbler at 350 degrees “until it’s done.”
“It’s really just a great recipe,” said McBride, 78, a public policy adviser.
In cemeteries from Alaska to Israel, families have commemorated their loved ones with recipes carved in stone by the deceased. These dishes – mostly desserts – give relatives a way to remember the sweet times, and they hope they bring some joy to visitors who spot them among the more traditional monuments.
“You only get one chance to make one last impression,” said Douglas Keister, a photographer and author who has written several books about cemeteries, including Stories in the Stone: A Field Guide to Cemetery Symbolism and Iconography. (For his own memorial, Keister is planning a bench that says “Keisters go here.”)
Recipes on tombstones are a relatively recent phenomenon in the long history of cemetery iconography, he said. But they’ve garnered a fervent following online. On her TikTok channel @ghostlyarchive, Rosie Grant shares gravestone recipes, attracting hundreds of thousands of views from a loyal audience intrigued by the intersection of graveyards and cooking.
“Cemeteries are open-air museums,” said Grant, 32, who lives in Washington, DC
Recent advances in headstone technology, like lasers that can be engraved directly into the stone, have made it easier to leave a more personal memorial, Keister said. Some contain QR codes that lead to memorial sites.
“We use cemetery monuments as an art form,” said Jonathan Modlich, owner of Modlich Monument Co. in Columbus, Ohio, and president of Monument Builders of North America. “It is our job as memorials to capture a part of that history that can be told in future generations.”
Years before Martha Kathryn Kirkham Andrews died, her fudge recipe was added to the tombstone she would eventually share with her husband, Wade Huff Andrews. The recipe drew so many onlookers at Utah’s Logan City Cemetery that the area where her property was located became known as “The Fudge Section.”
She and her husband had read a book about funny epitaphs and decided to make their tombstone a reflection of their lives. He decided to commemorate his life with several images on his side of the headstone, including the B-24 Liberator bomber he flew in World War II, which he named Katie after his wife, Salt Lake. She selected the fudge recipe, which she often took to church functions, club meetings, and other gatherings.
“If she made fudge, you can be pretty sure it went out the door,” said their daughter, Janice Johnson, 75, of Syracuse.
When Wade Andrews died in 2000, the memorial company who hired them to create the memorial engraved an error in the recipe that called for too much vanilla. A generation of cemetery-goers likely made the too-liquid fudge before the mistake was corrected after the death of Martha Andrews in 2019.
Richard Dawson, 71, of Chester Springs, Pennsylvania, best remembers his family vacations when he tastes his mother Naomi Odessa Miller Dawson’s spritz cookies. They were also a favorite in Richard Dawson’s office, but when a colleague once asked for the recipe, his mother said she wouldn’t tell.
Dawson had the recipe engraved on her tombstone. “At one point I thought she might feel like I cheated on her,” he said. “But I think she’s pleased with all the attention the tombstone has received.”
Allison C. Meier discovered Naomi Dawson’s spritz recipe a few years ago while visiting Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery in search of unusual headstones for a tour she was leading. The open-book shape of the tombstone caught her eye, and as she drew closer, she was surprised to see a recipe instead of a religious symbol.
The discovery inspired Meier to co-write a zine about the tombstone recipes she found during the pandemic. She titled it “Cooking with the Dead”.
“Recipes are such a beautiful way to remember people,” said Meier, 37, who lives in the Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn. “You’re still following in their footsteps and assembling the ingredients the way they did.”
In Nome, Alaska, Bonnie June Johnson was known for her strict leadership of the city’s Department of Motor Vehicles office and for the sweetness of her no-bake oatmeal cookies, said her daughter Julie Johnson Szczech, 52, of Fairbanks, Alaska. The recipe was engraved on Johnson’s headstone in Nome City Cemetery in 2007 along with an engraving of a Cool Whip container. (She has collected dozens of these.)
The recipe calls for nonperishable ingredients like rolled oats and Swiss Miss Hot Chocolate Mix, which are relatively easy to find in a state where perishable foods are often hard to find.
Even the man who cleared the snow from Johnson’s front yard “did an extra good job because he got those cookies,” her daughter said.
The recipe for Ida Kleinman’s Nut Bun Cookies, her most popular, can be found in Hebrew on her tombstone at the Rehovot Cemetery in Rehovot, Israel. Kleinman, who was born in Romania and married a Holocaust survivor, filled the dough with ground pecans, strawberry jam and Turkish honey, said her son Yossi Kleinman, 65, from Rehovot.
When he visits his parents’ grave, he likes to sit and watch the passers-by. “I just want people to notice the stone,” he said, adding that he saw some of them writing down the recipe.
An early entry into the genre was Maxine Kathleen Poppe Menster’s 1994 tombstone in Cascade Community Cemetery in Cascade, Iowa, featuring a German Christmas cookie recipe from her great-grandparents. When she was a kid, Menster’s parents hung the sugar cookies on their Christmas tree, said their daughter, Jane Menster, 66, of Bernard, Iowa.
When baking the cookies, Maxine Menster divided the family into different stations in the kitchen every December: she rolled out the dough, her mother baked the cookies and her children decorated them with colorful sprinkles.
“A cemetery doesn’t have to be a place of sadness,” her daughter said. “It can be a place of great memories. It might encourage people to talk about the good memories instead of the last memory.”