Cemetery Musings: Coins

A musing is defined in the dictionary as “a product of contemplation; a thought”.  As I wander through cemeteries, I am often thinking about the stones above the ground and the individuals that lie beneath. Why that epitaph, that symbol, that style of writing? These are just some of the “cemetery musings” that cross my mind.

Have you ever noticed, when walking through a cemetery, that people often leave tokens on the headstones of their loved ones? The items vary and include photos, letters, toys, trinkets, statues, stones and coins. After a little research I found a reason, besides personal ones, for one of the items…coins.

The practice of leaving objects on graves, especially coins, has its basis in many traditions. They are usually regional or customary practices that do not necessarily have religions connotations.

Coins were originally used to “pay the ferryman”. There are myths about the ferryman, or boatman, in many ancient religions and cults, even those predating the Ancient Greeks. The most well-known ferryman was Charon of Greek Mythology. He was an underworld spirit who transported the souls of the newly deceased across the rivers Styx and Acheron that divided the world of the living from the world of the dead.  His fee for service was a coin, a single obolos or danake, which was placed in the mouth of a corpse at burial. Those individuals who could not pay the ferryman, or whose bodies were left unburied, were forced to wander the earth as ghosts for one hundred years.

The practice of placing coins in the mouths of the deceased evolved to placing them on the eyes, the feet and, now, on the headstone. Where ever they are placed, the idea is the same; we are trying to assist the deceased to gain passage from this world to the next one.

The placing of coins has a significant meaning if the headstone belongs to someone who served in the military, especially if they died in combat.  Leaving a coin became popular in the United States during the Vietnam War. This was due to the negative political climate of the times.  Friends of the soldier who died in combat would leave coins to let the family members know that someone had visited the gravesite.  Leaving a coin was easier than visiting the family and risk becoming involved in discussions about the war.

The currency that was left spoke volumes about the person’s relationship with the deceased soldier. If they did not know them well enough to be considered a friend they might leave a penny. If they had gone through boot camp or a training class with the deceased they might leave a nickel. A friend who served within another platoon within the same company might leave a dime, while a buddy who served in the same outfit or was with the deceased when they died might leave a quarter. Some veterans from the Vietnam War left coins as a sort of “down-payment” to buy beer or play a hand of poker when they were re-united in the hereafter.

The coins left on headstones within National Cemeteries and State Veterans Cemeteries are collected by cemetery staff from time to time and are used to maintain the grounds. Some cemeteries use the coins to help pay for the burial costs of indigent Veterans.

In another American tradition, pennies are left on the grave of Benjamin Franklin. In a photo taken during his funeral in Philadelphia, his grave is adorned with pennies brought, no doubt, by some of the 20,000 people who came that day to pay their respects. This custom continues at his grave even today and is believed to bring good luck. The practice has also spread across America.  Some are even thought to use pennies as a prayer token due to the line “In God we trust” which appears on the American penny.

Whatever you leave, may individuals believe in the tradition of leaving something of yourself when visiting a grave. If nothing else, a coin from your pocket serves as a marker of your visit, showing the deceased is well loved and has not been abandoned or forgotten.

Information found at:

  • http://militarysalute.proboards.com/index.cgi?board=protocol&action=display&thread=864
  • http://message.snopes.com/showthread.php?t=80576
  • http://whofortedblog.com/2012/06/27/currency-dead-leave-coins-graves/
  • http://wiki.answers.com/Q/Why_are_pennies_put_on_a_grave#ixzz2IzZqNRz3
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