If you pay your Memorial Day respects at a cemetery – especially a military cemetery – you can still find signs of an ancient military custom. When you see a coin on a veteran’s gravestone, it’s part of a tradition that dates back to the Roman Empire – and probably beyond.
According to the Department of Military Affairs, coins were placed in the mouth of fallen soldiers to pay for passage and protection across the River Styx, which separates the world of the living from the dead. And in Navy mythology, coins were placed under a ship’s mast to pay the ferryman for safe transport to the afterlife of sailors who died at sea.
The tradition waned but never went away and gained popularity with Vietnam veterans to honor those who didn’t make it back home during a time when political divide rendered veterans the cold shoulder from many.
Here’s the current meaning behind coins on a military gravestone.
- A penny means someone has visited the grave.
- A nickel means the visitor and deceased were at boot camp together.
- A dime signifies the deceased, and the visitor served together.
- A quarter demonstrates that the visitor was with the deceased veteran when he or she died.
Tradition dictates that the money left at graves in national and state veterans cemeteries is eventually collected, and the funds are put toward maintaining the cemetery or paying burial costs for indigent veterans.
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