[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 snopes.com, 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.)
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?
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.