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Memorial Day thoughts about coins on gravestones

Coins placed on headstones have special significance

Memorials and remembrances are very personal things.

My father has been dead for over twenty years.  I still miss him–sometimes acutely, such as whenever a children’s choir is singing or at Christmas or whenever I drive past what looks to be the “perfect” fishing lake.

Something for "Bullet Bob"

Something for “Bullet Bob”

My husband also loved my father, which is one of the things that I appreciate about him. When we have occasion to visit my father’s grave, he takes along a cartridge for a 1911 Colt .45 pistol to deposit on the grave marker, in honor of Dad’s ironic nickname, “Bullet Bob.”

Similarly, when we visit the St. Louis grave of another man he admires, William Tecumseh Sherman, he takes along a fine cigar to leave behind after paying his respects.

On this Memorial Day 2016, I’ve been thinking about “paying respects” to those we love or admire, or whose lives and deaths we honor for their service to our country. All of us know that we Americans owe much to those who serve in order to protect and perpetuate our unique lifestyle, though most of us fall far short of performing our ‘due diligence’ in this.

While leaving items behind after visiting gravesites is not something I ever think to do, my meandering thoughts on the subject led me to learn something about the tradition of leaving coins on graveyard headstones–mostly on military graves. I have seen these in cemeteries many times, but never realized their meaning.

According to several sources, each coin left behind at a military grave originally had a very particular meaning. They were all intended to let family, etc. know that their loved one had been visited and honored, but each coin’s denomination had special significance.  A penny indicated that the grave had been visited. A nickel indicated that the grave had been visited by someone who had trained with the deceased. A dime said that the visitor had served in the same company. A quarter indicated that the visitor had know the deceased well, serving closely in the same outfit or having been present when the soldier was killed.

Audie Murphy gravesite, Arlington National Cemetary. Coins should be placed, not tossed...

Audie Murphy gravesite, Arlington National Cemetary. Coins should be placed, not tossed…

This custom became more widespread in the U.S. during the Viet Nam War, as a way of showing unity during the divisive political climate of the 1960’s and 1970’s. Over recent years, as people have begun to carry around few coins other than quarters, the coins left behind have less specific significance as to the visitor’s relationship to the deceased.

The origins of the custom are said to date back to Greek mythology. According to tradition, coins were placed in the mouths or on the eyes of the deceased to pay Charon, the ferryman of Hades, to transport the deceased across the River Styx that separates the living from the dead. Those who could not pay the fee were doomed to wander the shores of the river for 100 years.

The coins left on headstones in most 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. At Arlington National Cemetery, coins from well-known graves, such as the Kennedy Memorial, are treated as donations to the cemetery. Those left at individual graves generally remain untouched, though some of the coins left in Arlington’s Section 60 (the burial area for Iraq and Afghanistan soldiers) may be added to the Historical Memento Collection Project.

Some cemeteries never remove any of the coins.

1 Comment on Memorial Day thoughts about coins on gravestones

  1. Very nice and informative article. I learned something today!

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