On occasion, visitors of cemeteries throughout the U.S. might notice coins on gravestones, headstones and tombstones, and wonder if there’s any significance to the donated currency.
The meaning of coins on burial markers has varied among cultures throughout time, but in America the tradition is mainly carried out to honor veterans who have died.
The Montana Veteran’s Affairs Division (MVAD), which works alongside the Department of Military Affairs, a cooperative of state and federal government agencies that aid discharged veterans, published a “Coins on Headstones Meaning” guide that breaks down the tradition and symbolic meanings coins hold.
“A coin left on a headstone lets the deceased soldier’s family know that somebody stopped by to pay their respect,” the MVAD wrote.
“The tradition of leaving coins on the headstones of military men and women can be traced to as far back as the Roman Empire,” the folklore-focused guide continues. “Soldiers would insert a coin into the mouth of a fallen soldier to ensure they could cross the ‘River Styx’ into the afterlife.”
In the U.S., leaving coins on burial markers became a common practice during the Vietnam War, according to the MVAD.
“Due to the political divide in the country over the war, leaving a coin was seen as a more practical way to communicate that you had visited the grave than contacting the soldier’s family, which could devolve into an uncomfortable argument over politics relating to the war,” the MVAD reports.
Each coin left on a deceased veteran’s grave reportedly has a coded message, according to the MVAD.
– Pennies: Leaving a penny signifies a person has visited the fallen veteran’s grave.
– Nickels: Leaving a nickel signifies the person who visited the fallen veteran’s grave trained with the deceased at boot camp.
– Dimes: Leaving a dime signifies the person who visited the fallen veteran’s grave completed a part of his or her service with the deceased in some capacity.
– Quarters: Leaving a quarter signifies the person who visited the fallen veteran’s grave was present when the deceased died.
The MVAD’s coin guide notes that most gravesite operators collect coins left on burial spots on a monthly basis and the coins help cover cemetery maintenance, the cost of burial for soldiers or help for veterans in need.
Instances of leaving coins on gravesites have also occurred in non-military groups as well.
In Salem, Massachusetts, residents and visitors leave coins, flowers and other small objects on memorial stones during the anniversaries of the Salem witch trial hangings (June 10, July 19, August 19 and September 22), according to the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage.
American history buffs might also choose to leave coins on grave markers as a way to honor Benjamin Franklin, one of the nations founding fathers, according to the Schumacher and Benner Funeral Home & Crematory in Pottstown, Pennsylvania.
Franklin’s famous quote, “a penny saved is two pence clear,” which many have paraphrased as, “a penny saved is a penny earned,” inspired many to throw and leave pennies on his gravesite in Philadelphia.
So many coins were thrown on Franklin’s grave that the historic memorial site had to undergo restoration in 2017, the Associate Press reported at the time.
“Inspired by this tribute to greatness, some Americans have adopted this tradition for the graves of their family members and respected friends.” Schumacher and Benner wrote. “However, many cemeteries ask people to refrain from tossing coins and ask them to place them on the headstone instead.”
On a global level, leaving coins as symbolic offerings to deceased loved ones is a tradition that’s practiced by various groups in South America, Europe and Asia, according to Join Cake, an end-of-life planning tool that helps people create living wills and estate plans.