Why Are there Coins on Headstones in the Cemetery?
29 SEP 2017
Although the places, times and reasons may differ, coins have been widely used as part of funeral traditions. In some cases, the coins may be intended to serve to pay the deceased person's way once they reach the afterlife. Sometimes people leave coins at graves hoping to earn a bit of good luck. A more recent purpose for the headstone coins is to enable military veterans to let family members know that the deceased is not forgotten.
1 Fare for the Afterlife
According to Ágnes Alföldy-Găzdac and Cristian Găzdac, one of the oldest traditions regarding the use of coins at funerals stems from the Greek myth of Charon, the boatman said to ferry souls across the River Styx and into the afterlife. Charon will only provide passage to those with coins to pay the fare. Many ancient coins have been found buried with the deceased. Iconographic examples of an obol, a type of coin, being handed to Charon for passage can be seen as early as 420 B.C.
2 Business with the Deceased
One curious tale regarding the practice of visitors leaving coins on graves comes from the folklore surrounding the mysterious and embattled Irish-Canadian Donnelly family of Ontario, Canada. According to the official Donnelly family website, if a visitor leaves a coin on the Donnelly family headstone, he will be granted a wish. It has also been suggested that leaving coins on a headstone could satisfy a debt one had with the deceased if done by midnight, or could pay a ghost to stop haunting someone.
3 Military Remembrance
It has become increasingly popular for visitors to leave coins on the headstones of deceased soldiers. On the Blue Star Mothers of America website, mothers of soldiers explain that this tradition had its start during the Vietnam War, as a way for visitors to let the deceased soldier's family know who had visited the grave. Pennies represented people who knew him, nickels those who were in basic training with him, dimes those who were in the same platoon and quarters those who were close friends or who were with him when he died.
4 Increasingly Popular
This tradition is becoming more widespread and popular as an expression of remembrance and support for the family. In 2010, Vice President of the United States Joe Biden was observed leaving a coin bearing the vice presidential seal on the headstone of U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. David James Smith. The practice of leaving coins on tombstones is not limited to the military. According to New York Times writer Sean Hamill, people frequently leave tomato soup cans and coins on the grave of pop artist Andy Warhol. Claire Gibson, hired by the Andy Warhol Foundation to tend the grave, says it is unclear why visitors leave the coins, but speculates that it may be related to the Charon myth.
- 1 The Register-Herald: Some Leave Coins as Tribute for Fallen Soldiers, Families
- 2 Who Pays the Ferryman? The Testimony of Ancient Sources on the Myth of Charon; Ágnes Alfoldy-Gazdac
- 3 East Carolina University: Pieces of Eight
- 4 Blue Star Mothers of America: Coins Left on Tombstones
- 5 The Official Donnelly Home Page: Frequently Asked Questions About the Donnellys
- 6 The New York Times: Remembering Warhol: A Tomato Soup Can and a Pocketful of Coins