There are many possible reasons why coins are left on tombstones. Different cultures have different reasons to leave coins and money on graves, or for the dead. Explore some of the ancient connections with coins and our dearly departed across the globe, or scroll down for a QUICK ANSWER for the USA service person tradition, detailed at the end!
There are numerous myths the world over concerning the need for money after death. Each of these stories has left a mark on the mourning habits of modern people.
Once upon a time in Greece, there was a belief we now call a myth. The myth talked about a guide who rowed a boat across a river in the underworld. The guide’s name was Charon and Charon the Ferryman expected payment to ferry the dead across the river of forgetting. In order to pay Charon, the deceased’s loved ones would place coins on the eyes of the dead before the cremation or burial.
In all probability, the coins placed lovingly on the eyes of the deceased ended up in the pockets of the gravediggers, or those who cleaned out the crematorium. Also, the tradition of placing coins on eyes predates coins – and probably has to do with weighing down the eyelids after death for the comfort of the living, rather than for the dearly departed. Read more about eye-weights in this Pendant and Ring post, “Obols and Eye Weights: Coins For The Dead.“
Ancient Egyptians mummified the dead and created elaborate treasure-filled tombs – not just the Pyramids – to make sure the dearly departed would have enough money to continue their lifestyle in the underworld.
Some Native Americans buried their dead in mounds with currency, trade goods, and the tools needed for the afterlife.
Vikings loaded their king’s burial boats with treasure to make sure they would arrive as kings in Valhalla.
Saint’s relics are treated like treasures and embedded in altars where the faithful congregate.
Some Chinese traditions include the burning of incense for the deceased, and today some Chinese burn money as a way to give it to the deceased for use in the afterlife.
Today, people wash and dress the dead in their best clothes before interring them with mementos.
The way we treat our dead is greatly influenced by ancient traditions, and money for the dead is an old tradition.
In the United States of America, people can find coins on tombstones in any cemetery, especially in military cemeteries. These coins are a way of communicating with the deceased’s family. A penny means a fellow servicemember came to visit. A nickel means a boot camp buddy came to visit. A dime means a buddy who served with the deceased came to visit. A quarter means the visiting servicemember was present when the hero fell.
If you are looking for a fallen service member, or family member, or friend who has passed, you can look for their tombstone on Find A Grave. Find A Grave is a community-driven effort to digitize the headstones in US cemeteries.
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