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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