Have you ever seen a gravestone covered in coins? It's not unusual while visiting a cemetery to see the stones covered in various amounts of money. So what's the deal with leaving all those mementos in a cemetery? Well, there's actually a distinct meaning.
According to legend, the coin goes on the grave markers of America's military veterans. Leaving a coin on the headstone lets loved ones of the deceased soldier's family know that someone has come to visit the grave.
Each type of coin holds a different meaning. Leaving a penny means you visited and want to thank the veteran of the armed forces for their service. A nickel left at a grave means you trained at boot camp with the deceased servicemen, while a dime suggests you served with him or her. Finally, a quarter signifies if previous visitors were with the soldier when they passed away. It really is a practical way to show up and honor fallen comrades' gravesites, on Memorial Day or any other time of the year.
The origin of the tradition, like the meaning behind it, is still up for debate, but many people believe it started during the Vietnam War. America was having a crisis of conscience. Any discussion of the war usually devolved into an uncomfortable argument about politics. Leaving a coin for a Vietnam veteran was a way to say you appreciate the soldier's service while avoiding an inevitable difficult conversation.
Of course, that's the theory. In reality, the now common practice of leaving coins on tombstones in America dates back only to 2009. The money is usually collected and donated to the upkeep of the cemetery and potential burial costs.
But humans have left artifacts and tributes at gravesites for thousands of years. According to ancient Greek mythology, during the Roman empire, soldiers would insert a coin into the mouth of a fallen soldier to ensure they could cross the "River Styx" into the afterlife. The money went to Charon, the Ferryman of Hades. Egyptians would often be entombed with various prize possessions, including coins and money.
However, one valid United States tradition is the leaving of "challenge coins" on military headstones by fellow veterans. These coins usually contain the emblem of the deceased's military company or unit, and fellow soldiers leave them to pay tribute to them and their family members.
This story previously ran on May 29, 2020.