Obols and Eye Weights: Coins for the Dead

With Halloween around the corner, let’s investigate the history of coins for the dead. Long before the advent of coins, people buried items of value with their dearly departed. Neanderthals would leave pollen, honey, flowers, and red ocher with the deceased. Early humans would bury food and household goods with their loved ones. Motivated by belief, the ancient Greek’s left a single coin in the mouth of their dead.

As far as we know, the starting point for deadmen’s coins is from the ancient Greek belief in a ferryman, specifically Charon, who escorted the dead to the underworld. Charon would offer safe passage to those spirits that brought payment. When preparing a body for burial, the family would include an obol (one-sixth of a drachma) in the deceased’s mouth, so they could pay Charon and gain access to the underworld.

The tradition continued for millennia and expanded as the beliefs of other cultures came into contact with the Greek faith. Like the Neanderthals, leaving items of value with the deceased continued through time. Eventually, coins were left in graves too. Sometimes the coins were to ensure the dead would have a life of ease after death. Sometimes the coins paid the way, and other times, the coins were a show of wealth.

More recently, in Victorian England, it became popular for people to place silver coins on the deceased’s eyes. A practical decision, coins helped keep the dead persons’ eyelids closed during viewing. Although one can manually close a dead person’s eyelids, they will sometimes open back up as the body dehydrates. Today, we cover the dead with a sheet, which keeps prying eyes undercover until the mortician can set the eyelids in a fixed position.

We hope you enjoyed this Halloween entry from Pendant and Ring.

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