Military Myths & Legends: Leaving Coins on Headstones
Humans have been leaving mementos on and within the final resting places of loved ones almost from the beginning of the species. Excavations of even the earliest graves uncover goods meant to serve the deceased in the next world, such as pottery, weapons, and beads.
The earliest known coins date to the late seventh century B.C., and as societies began embracing such monetary systems, the practice leaving of coins in the graves of citizens began yet another way of equipping the dear departed for the afterlife.
Mythologies within certain cultures added specific purpose for coins being left with the dead. In Greek mythology, Charon, the ferryman of Hades, required payment for his services. A coin was therefore placed in the mouth of the dear departed to ensure he would ferry the deceased across the rivers Styx and Acheron and into the world of the dead rather than leave him to wander the shore for a hundred years. In England and the U.S., pennies were routinely placed on the closed eyes of the dead, yet the purpose of that practice was not clear – some say it was to keep the eyes of the corpse from flying open (even though the eyes, once shut by the person laying out the body, do not reopen).
In these more recent days, coins and other small items are sometimes discovered on grave markers, be they plaques resting atop the sod or tombstones erected at the head of the burial plot. These small tokens are left by visitors for no greater purpose than to indicate that someone has visited that grave. It has long been a tradition among Jews, for example, to leave a small stone or pebble atop a headstone just to show that someone who cared had stopped by. Coins, especially pennies, are favored by others who wish to demonstrate that the deceased has not been forgotten and that his loved ones still visit him.
Sometimes these small remembrances convey meaning specific to the person buried in that plot. For more than twenty years, every month someone has been leaving one Campbell’s Tomato Soup can and a pocketful of change on the plain black granite tombstone that marks the grave of Andy Warhol. The soup can is easy to explain, given Warhol’s iconic use of that commodity in his art, but the handful of change remains a bit of a mystery. In a similar vein, visitors often leave pebbles, coins and maple leaf pins at the grave of Canadian Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson, the man who replaced Canada’s Red Ensign with the Maple Leaf flag.
While visiting some cemeteries you may notice that headstones marking certain graves have coins on them, left by previous visitors to the grave.
A coin left on a headstone or at the grave site is meant as a message to the deceased’s family that someone else has visited the grave to pay respect.
For Military, leaving coins of different denominations denote their relationship with the deceased. Leaving a penny at the grave means simply that you visited. A nickel indicates that you and the deceased trained at boot camp together, while a dime means you served with him in some capacity. Leaving a quarter means you were there with them when they took their last breath.
The earliest reference to this practice we’ve found so far dates only to June 2009, when it appeared as a website post. A version now commonly circulated an e-mail appears to have been drawn from it, albeit some changes have slipped in, such as, “A buddy who served in the same outfit, or was with the deceased when he died, might leave a quarter”, becoming “By leaving a quarter at the grave, you are telling the family that you were with the Fallen when he/she was killed”.
According to tradition, the money left at graves in national cemeteries and state veterans cemeteries is eventually collected, and the funds are put toward maintaining the cemetery or paying burial costs for indigent veterans.
In the U.S., this practice became common during the Vietnam War, due to the political divide in the country over the war; leaving a coin was a more practical way to communicate that you had visited the grave than contacting the Soldier’s family, which could devolve into an uncomfortable argument over politics relating to the war.
Some Vietnam veterans would leave coins as a “down payment” to buy their fallen comrades a beer or play a hand of cards when they would finally be reunited.
Today, military folk do sometimes leave very special remembrances at the graves of deceased servicemen: challenge coins. These tokens identify their bearers as members of units and are prized and cherished by those to whom they have been given; thus, any challenge coins found at gravesites were almost certainly left there by comrades-in-arms of the deceased.
Next time you visit a cemetery, leave a coin. And now you know.