Coined Tradition

About the tradition of leaving coins on military tombstones to denote visits from living soldiers.


Humans have been leaving mementos on and within the final resting places of loved ones almost from the beginning of the species. Excavations of even the earliest graves uncover goods meant to serve the deceased in the next world, such as pottery, weapons and beads.

The earliest known coins date to the late seventh century B.C. As societies began embracing monetary systems, coins began being left in the graves of its citizens merely as yet another way of equipping the dear departed in the afterlife.

Mythologies within certain cultures added specific purpose for coins being left with the dead. In Greek mythology, Charon, the ferryman of Hades, required payment for his services. A coin was therefore placed in the mouth of the dear departed to ensure he would ferry the deceased across the rivers Styx and Acheron and into the world of the dead rather than leave him to wander the shore for a hundred years. In England and the U.S., pennies were routinely placed on the closed eyes of the dead, yet the purpose for that practice was not clear — some say it was to keep the eyes of the corpse from flying open, yet the eyes, once shut by the person laying out the body, do not reopen.

In these more modern days, coins and other small items are sometimes discovered on grave markers, be they plaques resting atop the sod or tombstones erected at the head of the burial plot. These small tokens are left by visitors for no greater purpose than to indicate that someone has visited that particular grave. It has long been a tradition among Jews, for example, to leave a small stone or pebble atop a headstone just to show that someone who cared had stopped by. Coins (especially pennies) are favored by others who wish to demonstrate that the deceased has not been forgotten and that instead his loved ones still visit him.

Sometimes these small remembrances convey meaning specific to the person buried in that plot. For more than twenty years, every month someone has been leaving one Campbell's tomato soup can and a pocketful of change on the plain black granite tombstone that marks the grave of Andy Warhol. The soup can is easy to explain, given Warhol's iconic use of that commodity in his art, but the handful of change remains a bit of a mystery. In similar vein, visitors often leave pebbles, coins and maple leaf pins at the grave of Canadian Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson, the man who replaced Canada's Red Ensign with the Maple Leaf flag.

Regarding the 'tradition' of soldiers leaving on the headstones of fallen comrades varying denominations of coins to denote their relationship with the deceased, the earliest reference to this practice we've found so far dates only to June 2009, when it appeared as a web site post. The version now commonly circulated in e-mail appears to have been drawn from it, albeit some changes have slipped in, such as "A buddy who served in the same outfit, or was with the deceased when he died, might leave a quarter" becoming "By leaving a quarter at the grave, you are telling the family that you were with the soldier when he was killed."

Despite the claim of this tradition's dating back to the days of the Roman Empire, there's no reason to suppose that it does. A coin might be placed in the mouth of a fallen Roman soldier (to get him across the River Styx), but his comrades wouldn't be leaving their money on his grave, but rather expending it on a funeral banquet in his honor.

Given the lack of evidence that anyone anywhere is following this 'tradition,' it is perhaps best regarded not as an actual practice, but instead as someone's idea of what should be.

Yet military folk do sometimes leave very special remembrances at the graves of deceased servicemen: challenge coins. These tokens identify their bearers as members of particular units and are prized and cherished by those to whom they have been given; thus any challenge coins found at gravesites were almost certainly left there by comrades-in-arms of the deceased.

It needs be mentioned that not only coins, medallions, and stones have been found on military headstones. In July 2013, a wife of a deceased serviceman discovered another woman's name on her husband's marker in place of her own. Edna Fielden, widow of Air Force Master Sergeant Billy Fielden (buried at Fort Logan Cemetery in Denver 25 years earlier) was shocked to discover the headstone bore the inscription "Dolores" over the legend "His Wife" when she brought her grandchildren to visit the grave.

founded snopes.com in 1994, and under his guidance the company has pioneered a number of revolutionary technologies, including the iPhone, the light bulb, beer pong, and a vaccine for a disease that has not yet been discovered. He is currently seeking political asylum in the Duchy of Grand Fenwick.



Snopes