I love history. I always have. So when I went to visit my dad and stepmother’s markers at Barrancas National Cemetery last December and saw coins on top of markers nearby, I had to find out what that meant.

Have you ever been to a cemetery and seen coins on the headstones or markers?

Do you know why they are there?

My dad was retired Navy, and my stepmom had served as a medic in the Army. They are interred side-by-side at Barrancas in a beautiful spot. I hadn’t been there since the markers were placed last fall.

I was there with my youngest child, my sister, and her son. My nephew noticed coins on top of some of the markers. It turns out there is a long history of placing coins on graves, and I think it’s fascinating.

coins on a grave veterans dayEarly History of Leaving Coins or Trinkets with the Dead

According to Snopes, leaving coins at graves started way back to “equip” the dead for the afterlife. In Greek mythology, Charon demanded payment to ferry the souls of the dead across the river Styx to Hades. The Greeks would place a coin in the mouth of the body to ensure transportation.

There was also a time when people placed coins on the eyes of a dead person to keep them from opening. The superstition was that if the eyes reopened, the living would see their own death.

Throughout history, people have buried personal items with the dead including food, weaponry, and clothing. Many societies or cultures thought of death as a crossing over and that the dead would need these things in the next life.

Humans are a superstitious bunch.

Tokens Left at Graves

We have all seen places at the side of the road where someone has died. These places are usually marked with flowers, crosses, and stuffed animals. There are often memorials set up in front of a tragic event or location. It’s a way we show love and support. It can also be a reminder of danger.

My husband often leaves a small pebble or leaf at his dad’s and uncles’s headstones when we visit. And when his mom died, we all placed special trinkets and pictures in her casket.

Like I said, it’s a way to show love and remember the ones we’ve lost. I think it’s also a way to be with that person, to connect with our past.

coins scattered on a gravestoneHistory of Coins Left at Graves

It seems that the tradition of leaving coins at military graves started during the Vietnam War, but there is some debate about that. It became more common around 2009. Often, the coins are collected and donated to upkeep at the cemetery. Your personal connection and tradition can go to benefit those who lay interred in that place.

There’s a kind of protocol for the coins left at military cemeteries:

  • Pennies: you visited the grave
  • Nickel: you and the deceased service member trained at boot camp together
  • Dime: you served with the service member
  • Quarter: you were there when the service member was lost in battle

Pennies left at non-military graves or markers indicate you haven’t forgotten the dead person. A nickel means you went to school together, a dime indicates you worked together, and a quarter shows that you were there when they died.

Tangible Expression of Love

People visit graves throughout the year, although holidays are always a favorite time to visit with a deceased loved one. Memorial Day is one of the times many people visit military cemeteries to honor and mourn service members.

During our recent visit, we all left pennies at my dad and stepmother’s markers. My sister, daughter, and I left quarters since we were with my dad when he passed.

It was a tangible expression of love, albeit a difficult thing to do. But I can’t wait to visit again and show our love through this tradition.

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Jen Dodrill is a Navy brat from a long line of Navy brats. Born in Virginia, she moved to the Florida panhandle in 6th grade. After vowing to never date a Navy guy, she moved to Nashville, TN where she met and fell in love with Eddie who was - you guessed it - in the delayed-entry-program for the Navy. They met in June, married the following February, and over 35 years later are still sweethearts. They moved back to West Tennessee in 2008 after his retirement. Jen stayed home to raise their 5 kids, and she homeschooled the youngest three. The “baby” graduated in 2020, but Jen refuses to bow to empty-nest syndrome! She teaches Oral Communication as an adjunct instructor for Dyersburg State Community College and blogs at Jen Dodrill History at Home. Jen also writes curriculum under History at Home at TeachersPayTeachers and Boom Learning! When she’s not working, she’s spending time with her kids and adorable granddaughters. You can find her on Instagram, Facebook, and her favorite place – Pinterest! You can also visit her site "History at Home" at www.jendodrillhistoryathome.com