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.

This entry was posted in graving and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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

  1. CAGEY says:

    > Thank you for the info. I love history and the stories.

  2. Michael Palmer says:

    I lost my dad when I was 18. I did not have a chance to go to his funeral or visit his grave. I am now 49 and as a gift from my wonderful girlfriend traveled to Pennsylvania from Florida to help heal my soul.
    My brother who lives here in Pa. is taking me today to visit his grave. Needless to say I want to leave a bucket of pennies.
    Thank you for your info. P.S. My girlfriend is named Penny, and I feel lucky all the way around.

  3. brett says:

    Thanks so much my uncles service was today noticed coins on my mom and dads marker.Will leave a coin at my uncle marker next time out!

  4. Diana says:

    I lost my younger brother in 1995, suddenly at the age of 34. He suffered a very tragic death and we were able to see him for closure. For the last few years, quarters were appearing on his headstone…we did not have a clue why or who. This past season on Hawaii Five O, McGarrett left a coin on the headstone of his father–I cannot recall what coin. I have never seen or heard of this in the past. Thank you so much for the informative answers.

  5. I was definitely happy to find this blog. I just wanted to say thanks for your time for this great post! I enjoyed reading it and I have bookmarked you to check out new blog postings you create.

  6. Lisia says:

    Today was the first time I ever seen coins left on grave sites. We were driving in the desert and came upon a old cemetery in the Armagosa valley. I am glad you could explain what they meant. Also some had a glass mason jar with sand in them placed on the grave site. Any ideas what that signifies. Most of these sites were unmarked but had little trinkets left.

  7. Richard Cox says:

    I came upon this on Facebook and it intrigued me. Although I did not serve in the military I did serve in the Fire Department with a young man who was killed while we were having a fire drill. That was in 1973 and I’ve thought of that day often, it’s not something I could ever forget. I visit his grave still and memorialize him on the anniversary of that day. So I am going to extend that practice a bit. I hope it’s not disrespectful, but, since I was with him the day he died I will start leaving quarters on his headstone. It just feels like the right thing to do, although as I said, we did not serve in the military together.

  8. Now I know why they do that! It’s a sign of respect! I used to get some of the coins when I was a kid! So disrespectful. Glad I found this! Thanks!

  9. Paul Taylor says:

    I started leaving pennies on my fathers headstone to show the family blood line. He is buried in Quantico military cemetery in Va. Not knowing any other significance, it was my small way to show we were thinking of him.
    Flipping the penny to tales for female members, heads for males. It formed a cross.
    Mom was at the top.
    My older brother, older sister then myself went horizontal.
    With my sisters two boys beneath hers.
    Now 26 yrs. later my mom has past and is buried with dad, I removed her penny. It now forms the letter “T” which is the initial to our last name.

  10. I don’t know why but leaving a coin on my Love One’s Grave Stone warms my broken heart. And knowing we will be seeing and loving each other as Christ Loves his Church is more than I could ask for.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *