Paying Respects: Why Coins Are Left On Headstones

A penny left on a headstone.

One of the things I’ve noticed while wandering cemeteries is how many headstones have coins left on them. I wasn’t quite sure what they meant, so I decided to look it up.

I was surprised to find out that there are quite a few superstitions that compel people to leave money on a loved ones grave…

The Ferryman

Charon the Ferryman is a reason for coins on gravestones.

By far the most popular reason I have found for leaving pennies or other coins on headstones is based in Greek Mythology.

According to legend, Charon, the ferryman of Hades, requires payment of one coin to ferry your loved ones soul across the River Styx that separates the living from the dead. Historically, the coins were placed in the mouths of the deceased, or according to some sources, over their eyes.

People who can’t pay the fee are said to be doomed to wander the shores of the river for 100 years. This sounds like reason enough to throw down a penny, just in case.

The Black Donnellys

Another popular reason for leaving coins on graves relates to the notorious Donnelly family, known as the Black Donnellys. A longstanding feud with another family resulted in the brutal massacre of five Donnelly family members. Some believe that the Donnolly’s will grant a wish for anyone that leaves a penny on the Donnelly family grave.

This superstition has expanded, and many now believe that a dead loved one will grant a wish if they leave a penny on their headstone, or that the loved one will watch over them and bring them good luck.

Military Messages

Headstone of Van Noland, Cypress Lawn Memorial Park, Everett, WA.

According to some, leaving coins on a headstone has very specific meaning for military burials. Leaving a penny indicates that you knew the deceased, a nickel meant you trained in boot camp together, a dime signified serving in the same company, a quarter told the family that you were with them when they died.

Apparently this tradition dates back to Roman times, but in the United States started during the Vietnam War as a way to leave messages to the family of the deceased without contacting them directly. Additionally, sometimes coins are left as a “down payment” for the deceased, a promise to buy their comrade a drink in the afterlife.

Remembrance

No matter what the original intention of the coin-leaver may be, it seems clear that a coin left on a headstone is a symbol of remembrance and respect. A way of telling all who pass by that the person buried there was loved and visited often.

Maybe next time I wander through a cemetery, I will bring a pocketful of pennies.

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13 Responses to Paying Respects: Why Coins Are Left On Headstones

  1. Anita says:

    “People who can’t pay the fee are said to be doomed to wander the shores of the river for 100 years. This sounds like reason enough to throw down a penny, just in case.”

    LOL yes good point :D.

    Thanks for looking into this, I’ve always wondered why people leave pennies on headstones.

    • Jenn says:

      Thanks honey! I always wondered too, and I am glad to find out that this blog is helping people get this information :).

      Love,
      Jenn

  2. mel says:

    What a fascinating blog! And I landed here on this date – my son’s birth/death date was 2nd August. I have always had an interest in graveyards, even before he passed away. When he was buried I spent days and days wandering around his cemetary wondering on the stories of the people resting there. It brings me comfort to think that perhaps when I am gone, someone else will discover his grave and his story and leave him a coin in respect.

    • Jenn says:

      Hi Mel,

      I am glad you like it here :). I took a look at your website and I think it is awesome that you are reaching out to help other families who have experienced the pain that you have been through.

      I discovered my love of graving much the same way as you, wandering cemeteries, reading headstones, and wishing I knew more about the people there and the loved ones they left behind. I feel quite certain that many people will pass by your sons grave and reflect on the loss of such a young soul, and quite possibly leave items behind to show that they stopped by.

      Jenn

      • Bill says:

        the honor of knowing those who passed before us is always appreciated and never forgotten. The person that we knew is taken from us, however, the memories are there forever. Also, the knowledge that is beneath our feet is also gone unless it was shared while they were still alive.
        GOD bless and always maintain faith.

  3. TennEagle says:

    Thank you for posting this excellent explanation! We just saw coins on a tombstone for the 1st time yesterday & wondered. It was Floyd Collins’ tombstone, a famous cave explorer who died in a caving accident in 1925. There were MANY coins on his tombstone, which is just a few miles from Mammoth Cave. I now imagine they are from the many cavers who stopped by to pay their respects to “the greatest cave explorer ever known,” which is on his tombstone.

    • Jenn says:

      TennEagle,

      Wow, thank you so much for introducing me to the story of Floyd Collins. I had never heard of him until now, and I am reading everything I can find about him. Apparently there is also a play about him, I would like to see that some day.

      Jenn

  4. Sean Noland says:

    Hello, the pennies on my grandfathers marker shown above are in remberenace for the pennies and hand drawn pictures he would add to greeting cards as his signature. Brings a smile when you think of him lovingly sketching the chicken/turkey/bird (discussion for another blog) and taping it to the inside of the card. Great man.

    • Jenn says:

      Sean,

      It sounds like your grandfather was an awesome person. It is great to know the stories behind these coins, and the reason they were so lovingly left.

      I think it is interesting that something that is so common (leaving pennies on headstones) can mean so many different things to so many people. Thank you for sharing the story of your grandfathers pennies.

      Jenn

  5. Rick says:

    I done goofed earlier than… One of my “old” friends mother’s passed away a couple years back, and if the Military tradition is true, I should’ve put either a penny, a quarter, or both on her gravestone – rather than a nickel… I wasn’t even a thought in my parent’s eyes when this sweet lady was in the service…

  6. Jeanne says:

    I’ve been finding quarters on my husband’s gravesite pedestal. It is amazing to me that no one has disturbed them. I asked my son and grandson if they had put them there, they were curious also. I felt it had to be a special reason, now it’s even more special to us. Thank you.

  7. Suzanne says:

    I just stumbled on your website as I sit here now pulling weeds from around my moms head stone I’ve seen the coin thing for a few years and honestly never thought about it to much till I recently lost my mom and noticed from time to time someone would leave a penny ….. My question … What does it mean or do if any I notice when storms blow through sometimes the pennies get blown to the ground or gone away ? Makes me sad when that happens but really sad now that I know the meaning ! I truly feel blessed to have found your page and love the work your doing !! I to have always had interest in cemeteries ….and now I spend a lot of time in one . Thank you

  8. Markq says:

    Thank you very easy to understand and now I know there are pennies all over graves.

    :-)

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