Why You Should Never Pick Up Coins On Top Of Gravestones

While visiting a cemetery, most people expect to see flowers and statues on top of graves. But many American graves have coins–on the headstone, on the grave marker, or in the grass. These are not spare change; they have a specific meaning that dates back thousands of years. If you’re wondering what that meaning is, keep reading.

Coins Appear On Graves Across America

Across America, people have been leaving coins on graves. They sit on top of the headstones or at the base, near the grass.

Coins have been placed on a poet's headstone.
Matthew Lloyd/Getty Images
Matthew Lloyd/Getty Images

If you find coins in a cemetery, do not pick them up! They are not loose change. In short, they are gifts to the deceased. But what do they mean, and how did this happen?

Humans Have Been Honoring Graves For Thousands Of Years

To start, we have to go back in time. Scientists have found evidence of grave offerings as far back as the Stone Age. Neolithic humans would bury their comrades with pottery, food, or stone weapons.

This drawing shows a funerary procession during the Stone Age.
English Heritage/Heritage Images/Getty Images
English Heritage/Heritage Images/Getty Images

Historians cannot determine if Neolithic humans believed in a life after death, but these offerings indicate that they did.

These Offerings Had A Spiritual Purpose

In ancient times, people who bury loved ones with items inside, on, or near their graves. They believed that the deceased would carry these items into the afterlife.

A visitor places coins on a grave marker.
Jeremy Drey/MediaNews Group/Reading Eagle via Getty Images
Jeremy Drey/MediaNews Group/Reading Eagle via Getty Images

These were called grave goods. Unlike today’s cemetery offerings, grave goods were designed to aid the deceased in their transition into the afterlife.

And There Weren’t Just Coins

Ancient Egypt had some of the most comprehensive grave goods, especially for the rich. According to the World History Encyclopedia, people would be buried with foods, drinks, dolls, jewelry, board games, furniture, and valuables.

A cemetery in Poland lites its graves during a vigil of All Souls.
Jaap Arriens/NurPhoto via Getty Images
Jaap Arriens/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The ancients imagined an afterlife as a mirror image of life on Earth. These grave goods would allow people to enjoy the afterlife with their favorite belongings.

Charon: The Earliest Mention Of Coins In Graves

The most well-known use of coins in burials stems from ancient Greece. In Greek polytheism (also called Hellenic polytheism), a ferryman, Charon, would take the souls of the dead across the river Styx into the Underworld.

In this painting, Charon speaks to Psyche from his boat.
Fine Art Photographic Library/Corbis via Getty Images
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However, Charon would not bring passengers without a price. If Charon was not paid, he would leave souls on the shore for a century.

But These Coins Were Placed On The Body, Not The Grave

Ancient Greek coins, usually an obolus or danake, were buried with the dead to pay Charon. However, they were not placed on top of the graves.

These ancient coins are from the reign of Alexander the Great.
Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

These coins were buried with the corpse, usually on top of the eyes or inside of the mouth. If the person was cremated, people would place coins on their ashes, according to ancient coin expert Mike Markowitz.

Coins Were Part Of The Burial Process

We should note that coins were not the only ancient Greek offering. In fact, “Charon’s obols” were actually a part of the body preparation process, an ancient form of embalming.

This stele is from the Kerameikos Cemetery, Athens.
Heritage Art/Heritage Images via Getty Images
Heritage Art/Heritage Images via Getty Images

After the deceased was buried, the ancients would pour libations such as honey, milk, wine, oils, and perfumes. Other food offerings, like celery and dried fruits, were also common.

The Coin Tradition Continued Throughout History

Despite originating in ancient Greece, grave coins have continued throughout the century. Throughout folklore, money has served as an offering to a variety of spirits.

Coins have been hammered into a tree.
Arati Ranadive/Pinterest
Arati Ranadive/Pinterest

During the 19th century, the British would hammer “wishing coins” into trees to have their wish granted from a spirit. In Canada, people would drop coins into certain graves for the same reason.

But What About American Graves?

Nowadays, few Americans are Hellenic polytheists. So why are there so many coins on modern American graves? Why not place flowers or religious statues?

The purpose of these offerings is widely debated. However, there is one possible meaning that might explain the phenomenon that has been making its rounds on the internet.

Coins Are Placed On Military Graves

Many Americans place coins on military graves. This usually occurs during Memorial Day, but you will find coins on these graves throughout the year.

A woman touches a corporal's grave.
Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images
Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Usually, fellow soldiers and veterans will place coins on the graves of their fallen comrades. Everything from pennies to dollar coins has been seen on graves, each with a distinct meaning.

When Did This Tradition Start?

This tradition likely came from the Vietnam War era, during the 1960s and ’70s. Over 58,000 American soldiers died in that war.

A variety of coins sit on a tombstone.
Arterra/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Arterra/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

While many people placed flowers on veterans’ graves, others wanted something more unique and long-lasting. Since every veteran-owned coins, they started using those to help their comrade’s grave stand out.

Each Coin Has A Different Meaning

According to this theory, every coin has a different meaning, although sources disagree on what those meanings are. According to The Baxter Bulletin, here are the meanings:

A variety of coins lie in a pile.

Pennies indicate that the grave has been visited before. Nickels imply that the visitor and deceased attended boot camp together, while dimes suggest that they served together. If you see a quarter, that means the visitor was present when the deceased was killed.

However, One Expert Disagrees With This

Some experts disagree on the military theory. Tui Snider, the author of Grave Goods: The Meaning of Coins, Seashells & Other Items Left at Historic Cemeteries, has brought up some counterarguments.

Coins are on top of Jackie Kennedy's grave.
Robert Alexander/Getty Images
Robert Alexander/Getty Images

Snider claimed that she has seen coins on all types of graves, not just military ones. Plus, the inconsistencies among sources indicate that the “meanings” might not be real.

Coins Tend To Be More Convenient Than Flowers

Compared to flowers and other decorations, coins are a convenient offering. Most people carry them on their person, and few pay for goods with small coins like pennies.

Coins have been placed on top of Jack Kerouac's grave.
David Kamerman/The Boston Globe via Getty Images
David Kamerman/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

If someone stops by a cemetery, they might not have time to buy flowers. Because of this, coins are becoming a popular grave offering.

However, Flowers Have Different Meanings, Too

Coins having different meanings is not unheard of. Funerary flowers also have distinct meanings, depending on the species and color.

Dozens of flowers in a variety of colors surround Chris Cornell's grave.
Barry King/Getty Images
Barry King/Getty Images

According to Roupp Funeral Home, the most popular gravesite flowers are roses, lilies, daisies, orchids, carnations, carnations, irises, and hydrangeas. Each of these carries a “message” that communicates something about a loved one.

Flowers Have Been Popular Offerings Throughout History

Flowers are one of the oldest grave offerings in history. Archaeologist Ralph Solecki discovered gravesites with flowers that were 62,000 years old!

A delicate floral relief sculpture on the ivory marble walls of the Taj Mahal.
Edwin Remsberg/VWPics/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Edwin Remsberg/VWPics/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Flowers have been found in the Neanderthal graves in the Shanidar Caves of Iraq. Written records even indicate floral wreaths were arranged for ancient Greek and Roman funerals.

Initially, Flowers Were Used To Cover The Smell

Originally, flowers were not just used for beauty. The ancients used them to conceal the smell.

A woman lays flowers on coffins placed next to each other.

Before people developed corpse preservation, they brought strong-smelling flowers to the funeral to mask the smell of decay. They were still beautiful flowers, but they were chosen for their smell as well as their appearance.

In The U.S., Floral Graves Didn’t Appear Until The 19th Century

In the United States, funerary flowers did not become common until the 1800s. They usually appeared at the funerals of famous presidents, such as Andrew Jackson (especially if the smell of decay was strong).

During World War II, two women decorate a grave.
Photo12/UIG/Getty Images
Photo12/UIG/Getty Images

According to American historian Jay Winik, flower offerings became popular after Abraham Lincoln’s funeral. “Searching for some way to express their grief, countless Americans gravitated to bouquets of flowers,” Winik wrote.”Thus was born a new tradition: laying flowers at a funeral.”

As Time Passed, This Practice Became More Complex

Throughout thousands of years, humans expanded the practice of funerary flowers. María José Iriarte-Chiapusso, a researcher from the University of the Basque Country, said that the original flower colors were yellow and white.

A woman places flowers on Frank Sinatra's grave.
Robert Alexander/Getty Images
DON EMMERT/AFP via Getty Images

As time passed, people added a larger variety of flowers to funerals. Blossoms of all shapes and colors entertained the scene, each with its own meanings and traditions.

Here Are Some Of The Flower Meanings

Although many people choose funeral flowers for their looks, others pick them for their meanings. Lilies, one of the most common graveside flowers, represent innocence. Carnations stand for remembrance and love.

A bouquet is arranged with an American flag at a cemetery.
Getty Images/Bob Riha, Jr.
Robert Alexander/Getty Images

Depending on their color, roses have different meanings. Pink roses signify love and appreciation, while yellow roses are usually given by friends, not family.

Even Bouquets Communicated Secret Messages

In the Victorian era, flowers had such well-understood meanings that people would convey secret messages through bouquets. This is called floriography.

A florist carries a bouquet through her shop.
Yuri SmityukTASS via Getty Images
Yuri SmityukTASS via Getty Images

For example, two roses and two gerbera daisies means “I’ve never felt this way before,” according to The Smithsonian. But where did these meanings come from in the first place?

How Are These Meanings Assigned?

Both flower and coin meanings have a long and complicated history. Their meanings come from a mixture of culture, tradition, and folklore.

A florist arranges red roses in a bouquet.
Hendrik Schmidt/picture alliance via Getty Images
Hendrik Schmidt/picture alliance via Getty Images

For example, colorful chrysanthemums are mainly used for funerals in some European countries like France, Hungary, Spain, Italy, and Poland. Meanwhile, white chrysanthemums symbolize grief in China, Korea, and Japan.

Herbs Were Similar To Flowers

Like flowers, herbs also come with symbolism, especially in funerals. In Rome, people placed rosemary on the casket. This sturdy evergreen herb symbolized remembrance and eternal life.

A variety of herbs are on a cutting board.
Marco Simonini/REDA&CO/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Marco Simonini/REDA&CO/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

People would also burn thyme and lavender to give the deceased some peace of mind. Lemonbalm provided peace and healing for any who felt troubled while they died.

But Not All Offerings Were So Expensive

Before the Victorian era, most offerings were not as expensive or difficult to gather as flowers. Most were actions, not items. Music, prayers, and speeches made up the funeral service, much like today.

A few coins and a bracelet are on top of a grave.
Carsten Koall/Getty Images
Carsten Koall/Getty Images

Although every culture places different items on graves, most of them share two commonalities: food and personal belongings.

Rocks Are Also Common Offerings

Along with coins, many people place rocks on top of a headstone. This Jewish tradition serves many purposes, such as keeping the soul in this world for a while, which many find comforting.

Rockers have been placed on top of a Jewish headstone.
Robert Alexander/Getty Images
Robert Alexander/Getty Images

These pebbles also warned Jewish priests called kohanim. These priests would become impure if they walked within four feet of a corpse, so the rocks told them to stay back.

…Versus Large Stones

Tiny rocks are not the only offering you’ll find on graves. The ancients used to place large stones on top of graves to prevent animals from digging up the corpse.

Large stones surround a tomb from the 3rd millennium.
CM Dixon/Heritage Images/Getty Images
CM Dixon/Heritage Images/Getty Images

The bigger the pile, the more important the person who was buried there. Imagine this as a mini-pyramid that did not take decades to create.

Food For The Deceased Dates Back Centuries

Food and drinks are some of the oldest offerings for the dead. According to Penn Museum, offerings of grains, wine, and oils date back to the Bronze and Iron Ages.

A lemon was placed on top of a headstone in a cemetery during the Day of the Dead.
Jan Sochor/Getty Images
AIZAR RALDES/AFP via Getty Images

In Mesopotamia, people gave food to the dead to ensure that they did not go hungry. Everything from meat to rice to fruit has been placed on a gravesite.

In Fact, Halloween Stemmed From This Tradition

While you might not have heard about feasts with the dead, you likely know Halloween. This holiday stemmed from the ancient Gaelic festival Samhain.

Light-up ghosts and pumpkins surround a halloween sign.
seungju lee/Unsplash
seungju lee/Unsplash

On October 31st, people believed that spirits–including souls of the dead–freely roamed the earth. According to folklore, the dead would visit their family homes. Families would leave out meals and chairs for their deceased family members.

Eating With The Dead Today

The tradition of sharing food with the dead did not end with Halloween. Nowadays, many people share meals near a loved one’s grave. Some place the deceased’s favorite drink or meal on the grave.

A family eats a meal by the grave of a loved one.
JOE KLAMAR/AFP via Getty Images
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Graveyard picnics were especially popular in the 19th century. Nowadays, though, it is illegal to eat in many cemeteries to prevent littering.

You Can Give Coins To Cremation Graves, Too

Mourners do not have to put offerings on headstones. Loved ones who are cremated can still receive coins, flowers, and other gifts.

Flowers are laid on funeral urns in the Pere Lachaise cemetery.

Some cemeteries have provided glass containers for the urn and any offerings the family desired. These containers often hold pictures of the deceased, their favorite belongings, and fresh or faux flowers.