A penny for a grave

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A penny for a grave

While the tradition already existed back in Ancient Greece of placing a coin in the mouth of someone deceased in order to pay for their soul’s passage across the River Styx with the ferryman Charon, there is another far more recent but no less esoteric one.

If you wander around American military cemeteries or memorials and cast an eye over the graves and tombs around you, you are sure to notice coins placed on the top left of the headstones.

This tradition is still popular and appears to have originated during the time of the Vietnam War as a means of paying tribute to comrades in arms who fell in combat. Initially reserved for the U.S. Special Forces, the practice was subsequently adopted by the rest of the army corps.

You might not think it at first, but the coins left there are not merely a random gesture.

Each face value represents a different message and signifies something very specific...


A penny

If you would like to show your respects to the deceased, a penny indicates that you have visited.

Coin United States

Flying Eagle Cent, Cent, 1858, U.S. Mint, Philadelphia

A nickel

If you attended boot camp with the deceased, you can leave your mark in the form of a nickel (5 cents).

Coin United States

Shield Nickel, 5 Cents, 1869, Philadelphia, EF(40-45)

A dime

If you served alongside the deceased, you leave behind a dime (10 cents).

Coin United States

Mercury Dime, Dime, 1916, San Francisco, EF(40-45), Silver

A quarter

Finally, if you were with the soldier at the time when they fell in combat, you place a quarter (25 cents) on their gravestone.

Coin United States

Washington Quarter, Quarter, 1973, U.S. Mint, Philadelphia


This modest, symbolic act lets the deceased individual’s family know that you have visited.

In addition to the gesture itself, once sufficient coins have amassed, they are collected and put towards financing the maintenance of the cemetery or paying for the funerals of veterans without their own financial means.


Translation: Michael Wright



  • Captain Burton E. Moore, Jr. of the Marine Corps Combat Art Program made this graphite sketch while serving in Somalia (circa 1992) (Public Domain)
  • “Jungle" by Ronald A. Wilson (1967) (Public Domain)



Selection published on 13/06/2020
Article themes:
History Traditions