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Fact vs Myth: The True Meaning of Coins on Military Headstones

[The following is an adapted excerpt from my book, Grave Goods: The Meaning of Coins, Seashells & Other Items Left at Historic Cemeteries. I hope you enjoy it! Also, full disclosure: that’s an Amazon affiliate link. If you buy stuff after clicking it, I make a few pennies at no additional cost to you.]

Do coins mean specific things on military graves?

A modern urban legend that began making the rounds of the internet in 2009 claims that when coins are seen on military headstones, the different denominations mean specific things.

I wanted it to be true, but…

In recent years, readers have forwarded many articles about this to me, or told me about it in person. While it certainly sounds interesting, and I wanted it to be true, when I actually researched it, the story fell apart.

Red flags during research

To begin with, I was only able to find information about this practice online. It’s not in any of my reference book. Even worse, there were many inconsistencies in the accounts I read. For instance, according to one source, a quarter means you served in the same unit as the deceased, but according to another article, a quarter means that you were present when the deceased lost his life.

So which is it?

The same thing happened with all the other coins, too. Pennies, nickels, and dimes all meant something different according to different sources.

Myth vs Fact

Nor was I able to drill down to the origins of this practice.  I finally turned to, a website that specializes in separating facts from urban legends. Unfortunately, this turns out that this is a modern myth.

Of course, you may still find coins on a military headstone, just as you may find them on anybody’s headstone. I merely want to clarify that the practice of having different coins signify specific things on military headstones is a recent idea and not a longstanding practice. (To learn more about the meaning of items left at gravesites, check out my book: Grave Goods on Amazon.)

(c) Tui Snider - Visitors often leave coins on the grave of Machine Gun Kelley in Paradise, TX
(c) Tui Snider – Visitors often leave coins on the grave of Machine Gun Kelley in Paradise, TX

Traditions must start somewhere!

And who knows? Perhaps the idea of “which coin means what” will be definitively codified and people will begin to follow this tradition in a consistent manner. After all, traditions have to begin somewhere!

Challenge Coins left on military headstones

In any event, grave goods ranging from stuffed animals and photographs to military medals and coins frequently appear on the graves of soldiers. There is even something called a “challenge coin” that may be left by military personnel on a headstone.

Challenge coins are non-monetary metal tokens that some military units provide in order to promote morale. These tokens may be inscribed with a soldier’s unit or other identifying information. Like other grave goods, a challenge coin may be left on a military headstone.

So what do coins ACTUALLY mean on headstones?

The practice of leaving coins with the deceased dates back to the ancient Greeks, who believed the rivers Styx and Acheron separated the living from the dead. A ferry trip was required to cross these waters, otherwise the soul of the deceased would be forced to wander the river banks for 100 years.

To avoid this, ancient Greeks placed a coin in the mouths of their dead as a way to pay Charon, the ancient ferryman.

These days, coins may be found on just about anyone’s grave, but I see them most frequently at the graves of historic figures, especially criminals, such as the notorious “Machine Gun Kelley.”

So while nickels, dimes, and pennies do not mean specific things, in general, coins left at gravesites are a way to let others know that a grave has been visited and that you are wishing them well.

Here’s a video for Identifying US Veterans Graves:

Since you’re here, do you know how to quickly identify 3 different types of official American military markers for soldier’s gravesites? To see more examples and learn some surprising cemetery history, check out the video I made, too:

Memorial Day’s Forgotten History – Then and Now!

Here’s a side-by-side comparison of the different types of US military grave markers. As you can see, there’s a shield on the Civil War type, the Confederate type comes to a point, and the General Type lacks the shield, is rounded, and has space for a religious emblem of belief.

Do you know Memorial Day’s Forgotten History? Here’s a video I made explaining:

  • What did Memorial Day used to be called?
  • Why do we celebrate it in May?
  • What does 3pm have to do with Memorial Day?
  • How did Memorial Day change after WWII?

WANT TO LEARN MORE? READ MY BOOKS: If you enjoy historic cemeteries and want to learn more, check out my books: Understanding Cemetery Symbols and Grave Goods. They’re available on Amazon.

Learn more at my YouTube Channel:

Do you have questions about headstone symbols? Drop by my YouTube channel and let me take you one some virtual cemetery tours! You can also tune in to my 30-minute historic cemetery podcast on the first Tuesday of each month: Tombstone Tuesday with Tui Snider.

READ MY BOOK: If you enjoy historic cemeteries and want to learn more, check out my book: Understanding Cemetery Symbols. It’s available on Amazon in paperback and ebook form.

Grab a FREE book:

Tui Snider
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  1. David David

    I see you refuse to post my comment about this, shame on you, you are not a truth seeker, just another opinionated blogger who censors anyone who disagrees with you!

    • Huh? And “shame on me”? I think you are being rather rude. I don’t see any other comments from you. Although there was a comment that used profanity recently, which I immediately deleted. Was that you? (Now I wish I’d saved it.) You must not have ever commented on my blog before or it would have posted your comment right away.

      Anyway… I’ve had lively discussions on this topic (and many other topics) with historians, genealogists, cemetery groundskeepers, veterans, monument builders, and taphophiles. They’ve never told me to be ashamed of any research I’ve done, even when they have pointed me in a different direction, or pointed out something that I misunderstood. Oh, well.

  2. Well folks when it becomes a common practice, it becomes true regardless of the history behind it,
    If someone places coins a grave with the intent that their visit was to commemorate based on these meanings, then it is indeed true and you are all missing the point. Snopes is not the arbitrator of what is in a persons heart when they leave a coin on a grave, the only arbitrator is the person that left it. In this case, if a person leaves a coin or whatever on a grave for “Their” reason, then it is true for them and that is all that matters so this debate about the meaning and origins is what is meaningless , pointless and just tries to “rain on someone else’s parade. So just STOP it!

    I am going out today, to leave a coin on my Vietnam War buddy’s grave, and it will mean to me and his family what we say it does. So Get over it!!

    • OK, I see your point. But I don’t get why you are so angry about it. Seems like you would rather be pissed off than have a respectful conversation. Oh, well!

  3. geb brown geb brown

    bravo ..great infoMiss Tui

    • Thank you, Geb! It’s something that I am still looking into. Research doesn’t always give us the info we want, you know? Thanks for reading. :)

  4. I think you are the only person besides myself who has blown the whistle on this bit of “fact” I see shared on social media about this time of year. No basis in fact at all. Thank you for spreading the word!

    • Hi Traci! Hooray!!! So glad I’m not alone. Sure it sounds nice, but it’s not true! And people are constantly tagging me and forwarding me stuff about this erroneous claim. I finally decided to write a blog post so I can cut and paste it to them – lol! Hope you’re having a nice Memorial Day Weekend. I’ll drop by your blog soon. :D Thanks again! ~Tui

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