Coins on Headstones: What Do They Mean?

Monday, December 28, 2020

A millennia ago, ancient societies in Europe and the Near East placed coins in with their entombed family members. This precious offering would help their loved ones in the afterlife.

In Medieval Italy, one or two coins of low-value were placed in a grave as a memory token. In Victorian England, it was common practice to place coins over the eyes of the deceased to keep them closed.

In the USA, the tradition of placing a coin on a gravesite continues into today. The practice honors the person who has passed away. It can be one of the ways to honor veterans.

In this article, we delve into the unique history behind this long-standing tradition.

Ancient Coins and Tombs: Charon’s Obol

Charon’s obol is a term used by historians and archaeologists to refer to a coin used in funerary rites. It has origins in the Ancient Greek legend of Charon, the ferryman who takes souls across a river to the afterlife.

Researchers have documented the use of Charon’s obol in almost every society and religion in the world, dating back a thousand years.

People placed the coins in the mouth of the deceased, or sometimes in the coffin or tomb. Charon’s obols are rarely made of precious metals–instead, they mimic real coins of the time.

Modern History: Coins on Headstones in the USA

In contemporary societies, people all over the world still place coins on gravestones. This is sometimes in place of flowers (coins can be a cheaper alternative) and sometimes the coins have special meaning.

Given some of the unexpected moments that can happen at a funeral, the tradition can be seen as a sweet gesture of honor and tribute.

Vietnam War: A Soldier’s Tribute

Memorials and headstones are particularly poignant when the person who passed away was a war veteran. Not only must the veteran funeral service follow certain protocols, but it must sufficiently honor the veteran’s service to their country.

The tradition of leaving coins on military headstones may have become popular following the controversial Vietnam War. Servicemen could discreetly pay tribute to their fallen comrades without getting into uncomfortable political discussions.

Honoring Military Service

Since its origins in the 1960s, soldiers and their families have continued this way of honoring veterans.

A penny on top of the headstone means someone visited. A nickel or a dime means the visitor trained or fought with the deceased. Sometimes visitors leave a challenge coin on the gravesite.

Cemetery management or family might collect the money after a certain time frame and use it to cover funeral service costs or gravesite maintenance.

Influence of Benjamin Franklin

Founding Father Benjamin Franklin once made a now-famous statement about a penny. The popularity of this phrase led to people throwing pennies on his gravestone for good luck. So many pennies, in fact, that the gravesite now needs a makeover.

Inspired by this tribute to greatness, some Americans have adopted this tradition for the graves of their family members and respected friends. However, many cemeteries ask people to refrain from tossing coins and ask them to place them on the headstone instead.

Continuing the Tradition

Have you wondered why you saw coins on headstones when visiting a cemetery? We hope we’ve satisfied your curiosity on how to honor veterans. Perhaps we’ve even inspired you to honor the life of a family member who served or a valued friend with a coin or two.

Are you looking for a caring and competent funeral home in Pottstown PA? Request information from Schumacher & Benner today.

Since 1905, families in the Greater Pottstown area have turned to the independent, family-owned Schumacher and Benner Funeral Home & Crematory to meet their funeral needs with professionalism and sensitivity.  

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