Have you ever wondered when visiting a cemetery why people leave coins on the gravestones of military members? This ancient practice experienced a resurgence in the Vietnam era and is a profound way for military members to pay their respects to their fallen brothers and sisters.

 

It All Began With the Greeks and the Romans

The ancient Greeks and Romans began placing coins on their dead thousands of years ago. According to Greek mythology, the coins would be used to pay Charon, the ferryman of Hades. After receiving payment, Charon would row the dead across the river Styx to the land of the dead. On the other hand, if no payment were offered to Charon, access across the river was denied, and the soul of the deceased was cursed to roam Styx’s banks for a hundred years.

The Greeks would place coins on the eyes of their dead, while the Romans in the mouths.

The Ancient Egyptians would also bury their dead with items they believed would benefit them in the afterlife. The pyramids are filled with artifacts such as boats, money, food, and other items thought necessary.

Desmond Doss MOH gravestone coins
Grave of Desmond Doss, MOH in WWII, adorned with a plethora of coins. (TriedandTrue.com)

 

Modern American Military Customs

The American tradition follows the ancient Roman custom of honoring the dead but with some significant changes. The coins left on military personnel or veterans’ gravestones have distinct meanings, especially when placed on the graves who gave their life while serving in our country’s military.

A coin left on a headstone or at the gravesite lets the deceased soldier’s family know that someone else has visited the grave and paid respect.

During the Vietnam War, the political divide in the country was wide. Even between families of servicemembers opinions varied widely. Sometimes even close friends and family members would stay away from each other to avoid further conflict. But for many veterans, there was still a need to pay respects to comrades who had died. So, they would leave coins as a “down payment” to buy their fallen comrades a beer when they would finally be reunited in death. “Until Valhalla” is now a popular term.

 

The Meaning of Specific Gravestone Coins

Each denomination had a different meaning and carried a distinct message:

  • Quarter – A quarter left on a gravestone signifies that the person who left it there was with the fallen soldier when he or she died.
  • Dime – A dime on a grave means that the two served together at some point in their careers.
  • Nickel – A nickel on a grave means that the person who left it there trained with the deceased, usually during basic training.
  • Penny – A penny on a grave means that a fellow servicemember has recently stopped by to pay their respects, whether or not they knew the deceased personally.

The money that is left behind is eventually collected and used for the upkeep and maintenance of the cemeteries and, in some cases, even for the burial costs of homeless veterans. 

One infamous person, John Wilkes Booth, the man who assassinated President Abraham Lincoln, has his gravestone adorned continually with pennies, not out of respect but of spite. The pennies were all left with Lincoln’s portrait facing upward in honor of the fallen president.

Oskar Schindler grave
The grave of Oskar Schindler in Israel is adorned with countless stones of descendants of Jews he saved during the Holocaust. (Times of Israel)

In today’s military, the creation of specific unit Challenge Coins has sparked a tradition of veterans leaving these coins on the gravestones of fallen members of their unit. In this way, they pay tribute to them and their families.

Among non-military personnel, the practice of leaving small stones on the graves of the dead is a way to honor the deceased and to show a sign of respect. 

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