There is actually massive symbolism behind coins left on headstones. You may have no idea, but it is more than simply tossing a coin a wishing well for good luck, and definitely more symbolic than finding a “lucky penny” on the ground and picking it up. In fact, this is one place that you should definitely never pick up the coins. They were left there for a reason, and they were meant to stay there. So leave them in place. Once you learn why they were put there, you’ll understand why.
Honoring the dead has been important since the beginning of time. Every culture, even going back to primitive humans, has had burial rites. They were buried with prized possessions, and their graves were decorated with flowers and other things of that nature. The ancient Egyptians even mummified their dead and in some cases buried them with their treasure. But today, we have developed another tradition that is equally as meaningful, involving coins.
But this tradition involving coins isn’t for everyone. It’s reserved specifically for the military. Often a service member’s death is much harder to take and a lot more traumatic than other deaths, such as someone passing away of natural causes. It’s a violent end to an honorable path, and it deserves to be recognized. No one wants to honor them more than their brother and sisters in arms, and their family members and close friends. So this coin tradition was developed to give them a way to grieve and honor the fallen soldiers in a unique way.
Enough talk, let’s get down to what the coins actually mean. Fellow soldiers often stop by to visit the graves of another soldier. These might be soldiers who fought on a completely different side of the world, in a different branch of the military, with vastly different combat roles. But more often than not, it’s a soldier who was fighting in the same battalion or regiment as the fallen service member. They might even have been fighting side by side with them when they were killed. The coins are a way to show that they have visited the grave. When the soldier’s family visits each time, they notice more and more coins piling up. This lets the family know that their fallen family member is being honored by their comrades.
But the tradition goes much, much deeper than that. Each coin has a different meaning and significance. It’s actually quite amazing.
A penny means that you simply visited the soldier. You might be his friend or family member.
A nickel means that you trained at the same boot camp facility as the dead soldier.
A dime means you served in the same company, although you never fought alongside him.
A quarter means that you were there when the soldier died. This is the rarest coin, and now that you know what it means, you can appreciate its significance if you ever see it.
The crazy thing is this wasn’t officially started by anyone in high command. This was all the soldier’s doing, the generals and the admirals had nothing to do with it. It’s rumored to have started during the Vietnam war, as a way to silently support the troops, as doing so overtly was extremely controversial at the time. The coins are collected years later, and donated towards veterans, or the upkeep of the graveyard.
Now that you know the truth, maybe the next time you visit a graveyard or a war memorial, you’ll bring a few pennies along with you. And without a doubt, you’ll know that those pennies are not for the taking! Silently appreciate them or even drop a penny of your own next time.
If you want to see an in-depth explanation of the coins and their meaning and history, watch this video. It’s extremely touching, and you might even cry at some point. May this tradition live on many years into the future!