Driving the backroads of Nevada, one can easily encounter a makeshift memorial or historic gravesite strewn with unique items that are well beyond the standard flowers one would leave at a headstone. In viewing these sites up close, one is almost certain to find various coins among the articles left behind by the travelers willing to take the time to stop and pay their respects.
There are various reasons for leaving a coin in a respectful manner, yet it may be surprising to learn that there are distinct symbols used within the American military world which designate a representation to the coins that are left.
According to the traditions set forth at the national cemeteries, leaving a penny at the grave site would signify that you visited and paid your respects. A nickel indicates that you served at the same boot camp with the deceased and a dime is stating that you served with the individual at some time. If you actually leave a quarter, you are letting the family know that you were with the soldier when they died. This practice became especially relevant during the controversial Vietnam war. A simplistic coin would communicate to a visiting family member, rather than a face to face debate regarding the raging U.S. conflict.
This tradition has been argued as having roots within Greek mythology. Legend would have it that the ferryman to hell was named Charon. He required payment of a coin from your loved ones so the soul of the dead could cross the river Styx which separated the living from the dead. Coins were more often placed in the corpse’s mouth or over the eyes to show forth penance to Charon, who would otherwise roam the endless river shores for hundreds of years.
Superstition of the penny has ventured far into other historical venues. In 1849 it was the school children of Baltimore that saved their pennies to buy the famous writer, Edgar Allen Poe a proper grave marker, following his mysterious death.
At the Philadelphia burial site of inventor Benjamin Franklin, visitors still leave a penny at the church site in reaction to his famous line, “A Penny Saved is a Penny Earned.”
An observer was quoted at the Seattle global attraction of the martial arts icons, Bruce and Brandon Lee’s gravesite as saying that the groundskeeper would remove the massive amounts of flowers and letters hourly, but the coins from around the world would remain all day. At dusk the facility would remove the coins in a reverent fashion, which were donated appropriately.
While other reasons abound for leaving a coin at the site of a death or burial place, they ultimately seem to reflect a remembrance or good luck to those who have passed on. In commemorating the deceased, it has been stated that historically it had been used to the mourners as others would state, “A Penny for your Thoughts?” This was an act of love to comfort the family and used as an encouragement to get them to speak.
So next time you have the chance to leave a penny at a memorial spot, one might wonder if they truly are “pennies from heaven.”