If you’ve ever visited a war memorial, the chances are good that you’ve seen some kind of coin on graves or even sticking in the divots of a name carved in the stone. And before you ask: No, someone did NOT forget their lunch money atop the grave of a fallen comrade.
This isn’t an arbitrary practice, nor is it a new thing. Putting coins on graves has an incredibly rich history that spans way, waaayyy back, even to ancient Greece. Want to know more about this fascinating practice? Don’t stop scrolling!
Why Do People Put Coins on Graves?
History of Grave Money: The Underworld & The River Styx
So why do people put coins on graves? The modern practice of putting coins on headstones can be traced back AT LEAST over 3,000 years ago to ancient Greece. As with pretty much everything involving Greeks of the time period, it related strongly to the Greek gods and Greek mythology. If the words “Underworld” and “River Styx” ring any bell in your mind, then you’ve got a good basis for understanding the meaning of putting coins on Veteran graves today.
It sounds like something out of a macabre, thrilling Halloween tale. In short, the Underworld was recognized in Greece as the place where everyone went when they died. Before the dead arrived, however, they’d have to cross the River Styx with the help of its ferryman, also known as Charon. However, the ferryman needed a toll to ferry people to the other side. Are you connecting the dots yet?
People’s loved ones did not want their deceased family members to be stranded on the other side of the Styx after they passed on, so the living would place coins in either the mouth or on the eyes of the dead. While we can’t imagine this was a particularly enjoyable final meal, it did mean that the dead could cross over with money to pay the ferryman. Usually, this money would be a Greek obol, a round-ish silver piece of currency similar to a quarter or dime.
This practice soon spread throughout western Europe and the New East, and many places and people have created their own adaptations of the tradition, which eventually paved the way for us to put coins on graves of military members.
As with everything, the meaning has been transformed by modern customs and beliefs over time. Though the idea of an Underworld and death-river sounds, frankly, awesome as hell, the current practice doesn’t exactly carry that same meaning.
For the most part, seeing coins on military graves means that someone has visited that grave and paid their respects to the dead. It’s also a way to let the family know that someone is thinking of them and their loved one. Depending on the type of coin, however, the meaning can change.
Why do people put pennies on graves? Pennies on graves symbolize respect and remembrance, and this makes them the most common coins you’ll find on graves. They show that a person has visited the grave and given their thoughts and respects to the fallen military member.
A nickel could symbolize that you knew the military member because you trained together at boot camp.
Seeing a dime on a grave could mean that the person who visited served directly alongside the military member.
Quarters often imply that you were present when the military member passed away.
People also sometimes leave behind challenge coins on graves of fallen military members. Challenge coins are unique, coin-like medallions that usually display the emblem of a specific unit or military branch and can represent camaraderie. It’s common to leave a challenge coin of the deceased person’s military branch on top of their grave.
Should you do anything if you see coins on graves? NO. It’s not a rancid bottle of milk or pile of dog you-know-what that someone disrespectfully left behind. Don’t touch any coins you see on a grave. Now that you know the meaning behind it, you know that it wasn’t an accident.
Don’t be an a*shole. Don’t be a grave robber.
What if you want to leave coins on graves at a military memorial site? Do it! Simply take a penny, or other denomination that represents your relationship to the deceased, and place it atop the headstone. Don’t throw it, kick it, flick it, or spit it out. Don’t make it some big event. Do it respectfully and quietly. Shall we say it again? Don’t be an a*shole about it.
If you’re unsure that you’ll be permitted to place coins on graves at a certain memorial or gravestone, you can always look it up online beforehand. Most memorial web pages or social profiles will have a note about whether or not leaving coins on graves is allowed at that particular site (for example, you are permitted to leave coins at gravestones in Arlington National Cemetery).
Traditions Similar to Coins on Graves
Speaking of grave robbers! It’s pretty common knowledge that many members of ancient Egyptian royalty were buried with tons of gold, jewelry, and other goods. It was believed that they could take all their wealth and material goods with them into the afterlife, including their precious pet cats.
People who are a part of the Jewish faith often put rocks around the graves of their loved ones. You may not find flowers on the graves of people who were Jewish for several reasons. Some Jewish authorities view flowers on graves as a pagan symbol or believe the use of flowers on graves to be a waste. Finally, to certain members of the faith, it counteracts the egalitarian nature of death. Then why stones? Because stones best represent an altar and its offerings to God, and stone has a ton of important roles to play in the Hebrew Bible.
Grave blankets are still a pretty common practice. Don’t misinterpret this; grave blankets aren’t plush throws that you drape over a tombstone. Grave blankets are evergreen plant arrangements that are planted in front of a tombstone. The origins supposedly come from Scandinavia, where people would place these natural blankets over their loved ones’ graves to tuck them in for their eternal sleep and keep them warm during winter months.
Putting coins on graves is hardly a new or original concept. What is nowadays? Just because it isn’t new or original, though, doesn’t mean it isn’t still immensely rich in its meaning. If you plan on making trips to visit Veteran memorials, we’d definitely encourage you to place a penny as you think of the sacrifices they made so that you could stand where you are today.
It might cost you a cent, but it cost them a lot more.