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Coins on Headstones


If you’ve ever visited the grave of a fallen soldier or passed by a veteran’s headstone and noticed that coins had been left there, you may have wondered why. Is it a tradition or was the headstone some sort of anomaly?

Well, leaving coins on headstones is a long-held tradition and although it isn’t reserved for military service members alone, the military community has seemed to embrace this symbolic gesture.

Here, we’re exploring a brief history of coins on military headstones, the meaning of coins on headstones, and what happens to the coins that are left on the headstones of veterans.

Why Do People Put Coins on Headstones?

To answer this question, we turn to the history of sending off the dead. Using coins to do so has been done since ancient times and we have a good understanding of how the Greeks used to say farewell to those who passed on.

Back then, it was customary for the ancient Greeks to leave coins on the eyes or in the mouths of the fallen. It was thought that the dead could use these coins to pay the mythical Charon the Ferryman to carry their soul on the journey across the River Styx.

Since crossing the river was thought to be the path to the afterlife, leaving the deceased with coins was an important part of the process.

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Many other cultures throughout history have taken on a similar tradition using coins and they have persisted for hundreds of years. Plus, as we mentioned before, it’s not only military veterans who receive a coin on their headstone. It’s a common practice for civilians that have passed on as well.

In terms of the tradition’s military history, it seems that people began leaving coins on veterans’ headstones for as long as people can remember. But, each branch of the military has challenge coins and these have become common to leave in place of regular coins. The tradition of leaving a military challenge coin began during the Vietnam War era.

The Meaning of Coins on Military Headstones

When leaving a coin on a veteran’s headstone, each kind of coin means something different. The meaning of the coins left on a veteran’s headstone is as follows:

  • Penny: When a one-cent coin is left, it simply means that the headstone has been visited.
  • Nickel: When a 5-cent coin is left, it signifies that the visitor attended boot camp with the fallen veteran.
  • Dime: When a 10-cent coin is left, it means that the person visiting served alongside the fallen veteran in some capacity.
  • Quarter: When a 25-cent coin is left, that means the visitor was there when the soldier passed away.

Although the origin of these meanings seems to be relatively recent (they may have come from a chain email from 2009) they are widely accepted. Therefore, the significance of these specific meanings holds true.

What Happens to the Coins on Veterans’ Headstones?

Although these coins are unlikely to result in huge amounts of money, most of the coins are still viable currency and since you’ve probably only seen a handful of coins on a veteran headstone at any given time, what happens to the money that is left at the cemetery?

Don’t worry – it’s for a good cause.

When too many coins pile up on any given headstone, the cemetery caretaker collects the money and puts it into a special fund. This fund helps with the upkeep of the cemetery itself for services like washing the graves, mowing the lawn, and removing unsightly weeds.

After all, a lot of cemeteries don’t receive enough government funding to keep the area in tip-top shape. So, the coins left on veterans’ graves help with these important tasks.

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Additionally, the coin fund also helps with the burial of veterans who are unable to afford a proper one. That is if a veteran passes and their families or the veteran’s estate cannot cover the costs, the coin fund is used to help with such circumstances.

However, if military challenge coins are the coins that are left on a veteran’s headstone, they are likely to remain there indefinitely. So, if you want your symbolic gesture to stay on your loved one’s headstone for years and years, leaving a military challenge coin is the best way to accomplish that.

Overall, it seems that these coins are put to good use. Not only are they humble signs of respect to honor the fallen veterans in our lives, but it’s also a donation to the cemeteries in which they rest and for fellow brothers- and sisters-in-arms who might not be able to afford the burial they deserve.

Other Ways To Show Respect to a Veteran’s Headstone

However, leaving coins on a veteran’s headstone isn’t the only way to show respect to one that has passed on. There are plenty of other ways to honor the memory of a fallen veteran.

Although, leaving coins are probably the most common gesture, some people leave rocks on the headstones of veterans that have passed. Although it may seem odd, it’s a way to commemorate the visit. It’s more likely that the caretaker of the cemetery will remove rocks sooner than they would remove coins or other gestures though.

Another classic tradition in terms of honoring fallen soldiers at their headstones comes from the history of Memorial Day. In fact, Memorial Day was originally called Decoration Day since it was the day that family and friends would decorate the headstones of fallen soldiers.

Some might decorate a veteran’s headstone with ribbons, others with flowers, and still others with the American flag – the ultimate symbol of patriotism.

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Of all these traditional memorials, ribbons and flags are likely to last longer than flowers for the simple fact that flowers die. However, leaving a coin is an even more ever-lasting gesture and is probably why so many have taken to the idea of doing so.

Beyond leaving these kinds of decorations and meaningful items at a veteran’s headstone, there are plenty of other ways to show your support of veterans.

On Memorial Day, there is always a National Moment of Silence to really reflect, remember, and honor the brave men and women who have served our country who are no longer with us.

One initiative called the Greenlight a Vet urges people to switch out one lightbulb in their house, office, or front porch to a green bulb, signifying your support of veterans. By giving veterans the green light, the idea is that we support them on their journey from soldier to civilian, no matter what challenges that might bring.

You can also volunteer at your local VA to help make the lives of veterans who are still with us as good as they can be. Or you can donate to a veterans organization that you resonate with as many of them do great work helping veterans of our armed forces each and every day.

So, now that you know the meaning of coins on headstones perhaps you’ll make sure to bring some on your next visit to a cemetery where veterans are buried. Whether you knew them or not, it’s a great sign of respect.

It’s incredibly important that we support our veterans as they have sacrificed so much for the safety and security of the nation and beyond. It doesn’t matter how you go about it, but find a way that works for you. All you need is a coin or two.

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