Shrouded in silence and surrounded by a wrought iron fence, the Fort Lewis Cemetery is characterized by row after row of perfectly aligned headstones marking the final resting places of veterans, unnamed infants and four World War II German prisoners of war.
In one row on the far east side next to the fence is the resting place of James Phillip Oatfield.
His headstone reveals the dates of his life and his service as an Army captain during the Vietnam War.
On top of the stone were twelve copper pennies; at its base lay a thirteenth.
What did they signify?
Paying the Toll
The practice of leaving coins in the graves of departed individuals began with the use of coinage around 700 BC. The idea was to prepare the deceased for the afterlife.
The ancient Greeks continued this tradition by placing a coin in the mouth of a deceased person. This was done to pay Charon, the ferryman of Hades. Once paid, he would convey the departed across the rivers Styx and Acheron and into the world of the dead.
Some Greek writers mention that those who could not pay the fee had to wander the banks of the rivers for one hundred years before they could enter.
As time passed the Romans continued the practice of placing coins into the mouths of the dead, and they placed emphasis on doing this for soldiers who had died in combat.
Headstones, sometimes referred to as gravestones, emerged from a Jewish custom in which visitors to a gravesite placed stones at its head to honor the deceased.
The stone left behind signified that the deceased person’s memory lived on. The more stones on the gravesite, the more honored and respected the departed had been in life.
Over time, headstones at gravesites replaced the custom of a pile of stones as a means of respectful remembrance.
Eventually these Greek, Roman and Jewish customs took on a unique form in this country.
Coins on Headstones of Veterans
The practice of leaving coins on the headstones in America became widespread during the Vietnam War (1964-1975).
A conflict which led to sharply divided opinions about the war, friends of service members who had died in combat began leaving coins on the headstones of their comrades to let the warrior’s family members know that someone had visited the gravesite.
The leaving of a coin communicates a message.
A penny indicates that someone has visited the gravesite and placed the coin as a measure of respect to the servicemember.
Others might leave a nickel indicating that they had trained with the deceased in some capacity; whereas a dime signifies that someone had served in some way with the deceased.
As to the quarter, it conveys the somber reminder that the visitor had been present when the fallen had died.
The leaving of coins on Captain Oatfield’s headstone conveys a measure of respect steeped in history.
This tradition continues in the quiet cemetery at Joint Base Lewis-McChord.