Why Are Pennies Left on Grave Markers?

A penny leaves a simple, but meaninful, message on a grave.
... Thinkstock/Comstock/Getty Images

Visit any American cemetery and you're sure to find coins, especially Lincoln pennies, adorning grave markers. These coins have various significances, from mythical to religious to personal. Regardless of the reasons behind leaving a coin, they are a way to remember the dead and commemorate their memory.

1 Paying the Ferryman

The custom of leaving a coin for the dead to pay the Ferryman to take them into the next world goes back to Greek mythology. Charon, the Ferryman of Hades, is said to require one coin in payment. Any spirit that cannot pay the fee is left to wonder the shores of the River Styx, between this world and the next. It was tradition to leave the coin in the dead person's mouth or to place coins over the eyes of the deceased. It is common now to see pennies left on a grave to pay the ferryman.

2 Vietnam War

During the Vietnam War, it became popular to leave coins on the graves of fallen soldiers. The denomination of the coin held significance in this case. A penny was left by a casual friend or acquaintance. Someone who trained in boot camp with the deceased would leave a nickel. A soldier from the same company would leave a dime and a family member a quarter. The coins were a way to for soldiers to leave a message to the family of the fallen when they didn't have direct contact. The money was also sometimes considered a down payment on a beer or a hand of poker when the mourner met the deceased again.

3 Famous Traditions

Benjamin Franklin reportedly said, "A penny saved is a penny earned." Today, people traditionally leave pennies on Franklin's grave. The pennies are tossed through the gate surrounding his resting place. It is believed that the act will bring good luck. The tradition of leaving pennies on Edgar Allen Poe's grave dates back to a group of schoolchildren who saved their pennies to buy him a grave marker.

4 Rememberance

Pennies are left on graves, most of all, in remembrance of the deceased. Leaving a coin from your pocket is a way to leave a part of yourself at the burial site. The coin is a visual reminder that, even in death, the memory of the deceased lives on. It is also a sign of respect to the dead, as it shows that their memory has value to you and is something you want to commemorate.

Shaunta Alburger has been a professional writer for 15 years. She's worked on staff at both major Las Vegas newspapers, as well as a rural Nevada weekly. Her first novel was published in 2014.