What do the coins on gravestones mean?
While visiting some cemeteries you may notice that headstones marking certain graves have coins on them, left by previous visitors to the grave. These coins have distinct meanings when left on the headstones of those who gave their life while serving in America's military, and these meanings vary depending on the denomination of coin. A coin left on a headstone or at the grave site is meant as a message to the deceased soldier's family that someone else has visited the grave to pay respect. 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. By leaving a quarter at the grave, you are telling the family that you were with the soldier when he 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 US, this practice became common during the Vietnam war, due to the political divide in the country over the war; leaving a coin was seen as 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. The tradition of leaving coins on the headstones of military men and women can be traced to as far back as the Roman Empire.
There are quite a few superstitions that compel people to leave money on a loved ones grave. By far the most popular reason is based in Greek Mythology. According to legend, Charon, the ferryman of Hades, requires payment of one coin to ferry your loved ones soul across the River Styx that separates the living from the dead. Historically, the coins were placed in the mouths of the deceased, or according to some sources, over their eyes. People who can't pay the fee are said to be doomed to wander the shores of the river for 100 years. This sounds like reason enough to throw down a penny, just in case. Another popular reason for leaving coins on graves relates to the notorious Donnelly family, known as the Black Donnellys. A longstanding feud with another family resulted in the brutal massacre of five Donnelly family members. Some believe that the Donnolly's will grant a wish for anyone that leaves a penny on the Donnelly family grave. This superstition has expanded, and many now believe that a dead loved one will grant a wish if they leave a penny on their headstone, or that the loved one will watch over them and bring them good luck.
No matter what the original intention of the coin-leaver may be, it seems clear that a coin left on a headstone is a symbol of remembrance and respect. A way of telling all who pass by that the person buried there was loved and visited often.
As always please see your local County Veterans Service Officer if you have any questions. You can contact your local VSO at (218) 631-7617 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org and as always have a great week.