Coins on Tombstones

Have you ever visited a cemetery and found coins on tombstones?

The first time I noticed coin mementos was in the Wilmington National Cemetery. I took the girls to the cemetery on Memorial Day when they were little. I remember them asking what the coins meant.

Since then, I’ve spotted coins on graves in Western North Carolina, Fayetteville, and Yorktown. So what do the coins mean, and where did this custom originate?

The practice of leaving coins on tombstones has Old World roots. Ancient Greeks believed the dead needed money to give to Charon.

Charon was the ferryman of the underworld who transported souls across the River Styx into the land of the dead. He refused transport to those without money, forcing penniless souls to be damned to roam the river bank.

To appease Charon, the Greeks left coins on the eyes or in the mouths of their recently deceased loved ones. In this way, coins became tied to death.

The modern practice of leaving coins at gravesites in America gained popularity in the 1960s during the Vietnam War. Vietnam veterans left coins on tombstones of fallen soldiers to let their families know someone had stopped by to pay their respects.

According to tradition, each type of coin conveys a different message:

  1. Pennies: A penny left on a grave denotes a visit from someone without a personal connection to the deceased and honors their service.
  2. Nickels: A nickel signifies that the visitor and the deceased trained at the same boot camp or served in the same military unit.
  3. Dimes: A dime indicates that the visitor and the departed served together.
  4. Quarters: If you find a quarter on a tombstone, it is often left by someone present when the person died.

Veterans across the United States carry on the military tradition by leaving coins for their fallen brothers in arms. Though it isn’t a tradition specific to North Carolina, the poignant symbol of respect, gratitude, and remembrance is alive and well here in the Old North State.

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