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The Meaning Behind Coins on Military Graves

coins on veteran headstones

Memorial Day is a time to honor those who made the ultimate sacrifice for our freedom. During this time, ceremonies honoring those brave men and women who gave their lives for our freedoms are conducted at veterans’ cemeteries across the country.

There are flowers, flags, parades, but have you ever noticed coins on military headstones? If so, do you wonder what they mean?

Table of Contents
What is the meaning of coins on headstones?  
Where did this tradition come from?
Honoring our heroes
5 Ways to Honor the Fallen This Memorial Day

What is the meaning of coins on headstones?

Placing a coin on headstones of a service member or veteran is a show of respect and honor, as well as letting the deceased service member’s family know someone was there, but the denomination of the coins each has a distinct and significant meaning.

Here is the breakdown:

Where did this tradition come from?

According to an article by the Department of Military Affairs, the custom of leaving coins with the deceased can be traced back to the Roman Empire. Coins were placed into the mouth of fallen soldiers to pay for passage and protection across the River Styx, which separates the world of the living from the world of the dead. In Navy mythology, coins were placed under the mast of a ship to pay the “ferryman” for safe transport to the afterlife in the event sailors died at sea.

The custom gained popularity in the U.S. during the Vietnam War as a way to honor the fallen during a time of upheaval and political divide over a controversial war. The coins were a way to quietly honor service members and communicate a message of respect for family members.

Honoring our heroes

Leaving coins on military headstones and veterans' graves is a kind and appreciated gesture, but what generally happens with them after time is also significant and special. The coins are usually collected and used for upkeep of the cemetery or to help pay for burial costs for homeless veterans.

While visiting military graves this Memorial Day (or any other day), why not bring some pocket change as a simple symbol of respect to those who gave so much? It’s a small gesture that could mean a lot to the loved ones of these late heroes.

5 Other Ways to Honor the Fallen This Memorial Day

  • Attend an event or parade: Communities across the nation organize events and parades to honor those who made the ultimate sacrifice. Join a local event or attend a parade to show respect and let the families of the fallen know their loved one is not forgotten. 

  • Fly the U.S. flag. If you haven't already, put out the flag as a symbol of patriotism. According to the VA, on Memorial Day, the flag should be flown at half-staff from sunrise until noon, then raised to the top of the staff until sunset. 

  • Wear or display a red poppy. The colorful flower is a symbol of remembrance that dates back to World War I. The tradition got its start thanks to a poem by WWI brigade surgeon John McCrae. Veterans of Foreign Wars conducted its first nationwide poppy distribution ahead of Memorial Day in 1922, a tradition that continues today. 

  • Post a Tribute: Honor a late veteran you know by posting a tribute to the Veterans Legacy Memorial.  The VA-connected website is "dedicated to the memory of the nearly 4.5 million veterans interred in VA national cemeteries." The site allows visitors to search for a specific veteran and leave photos, tributes, and memories in their honor. 

  • Spend time with family and friends. What better way to honor those who fought and died for our freedoms than enjoying the moments their sacrifice provided us? Sharing the day with those you love and care about the most is a great way to say "thank you" to these fallen heroes who can't with their families and friends so that we can be with ours. 

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