By far the most popular reason found for leaving pennies or other coins on headstones is based in Greek Mythology. According to legend, Charon, the ferryman of Hades, requires payment of one coin to ferry your loved ones soul across the River Styx that separates the living from the dead. Historically, the coins were placed in the mouths of the deceased, or according to some sources, over their eyes.
People who can’t pay the fee are said to be doomed to wander the shores of the river for 100 years.
The Black Donnellys
Another popular reason for leaving coins on graves relates to the notorious Donnelly family, known as the Black Donnellys. A longstanding feud with another family resulted in the brutal massacre of five Donnelly family members. Some believe that the Donnelly’s will grant a wish for anyone that leaves a penny on the Donnelly family grave. This superstition has expanded, and many now believe that a dead loved one will grant a wish if they leave a penny on their headstone, or that the loved one will watch over them and bring them good luck.
According to some, leaving coins on a headstone has very specific meaning for military burials. Generally speaking, a visitor who did not know the deceased well enough to be considered a friend might leave a penny. Someone who went through boot camp or a training class with the deceased might leave a nickel. A friend who served in another platoon within the same company might leave a dime. A buddy who served in the same outfit, or was with the deceased when he died, might leave a quarter. Apparently this tradition dates back to Roman times, but in the United States started during the Vietnam War as a way to leave messages to the family of the deceased without contacting them directly. Additionally, sometimes coins are left as a “down-payment” to purchase a beer or play a hand of poker when he was eventually re-united with his deceased buddy.
No matter what the intention, it seems clear that a coin left on a headstone is a symbol of remembrance and respect. A way of telling all who pass by that the person buried there was loved and visited often.
Dee Notaro is an amateur genealogist based in Atlanta, Georgia (U.S.A.). Her own ancestral background is made up of a mixture of cultures, including her Irish forebears who hailed from County Sligo. Dee teaches classes on genealogical research and is passionate about helping others find answers to their ancestry questions.