Have you ever seen a gravestone covered in coins? It’s not unusual while visiting a cemetery to see the stones covered in various amounts of money. So what’s that all about?
A coin left on a military headstone or at the grave site is meant as a message to the deceased soldier’s family that someone else has visited the grave to pay respect. Leaving a penny at the grave means simply that you visited. According to legend, the coins belong on the gravestones of U.S. military veterans. Visitors who wish to show their respect leave coins on the headstones in different amounts. Leaving a penny simply means you visited and want to thank the veteran for their service. A nickel means you trained at boot camp with the deceased, while a dime suggests you served with him or her. Finally, a quarter signifies you were with the soldier when they passed away.
The origin of the tradition and the meaning behind it is still up for debate. Many people believe it started in the U.S. during the Vietnam war. America was having a crisis of conscience. Any discussion of the war usually devolved into a greater discussion about politics. Leaving a coin was a way to say you appreciate the soldier’s service while avoiding an inevitable uncomfortable conversation. In reality, leaving coins on grave stones in America dates back only to 2009. According to tradition, the money left at graves in national cemeteries and state veterans cemeteries is eventually collected, and the funds are put toward maintaining the cemetery or paying burial costs for indigent veterans.
Humans have been leaving mementos on and within the final resting places of loved ones almost from the beginning of the species. Excavations of even the earliest graves uncover goods meant to serve the deceased in the next world, such as pottery, weapons and beads. The earliest known coins date to the late seventh century B.C., and as societies began embracing such monetary systems, the practice of leaving coins in the graves of citizens began as yet another way of equipping the dear departed for the afterlife.
The solemn atmosphere of the cemetery requires appropriate conduct from visitors. The Jewish custom is not to bring flowers or floral wreaths to the graves. Instead, when taking leave of the deceased, one should place a pebble or a small stone upon the grave. Upon entering and leaving the cemetery, it is customary to wash one’s hands using a cup of water poured alternately on each hand. The custom is not to come back the same day for another cemetery visit.
Jewish cemetery etiquette requires proper decorum. It is forbidden to treat the cemetery lightly and derive any kind of benefit from the graves. Levity and undignified behavior is unacceptable in the presence of the dead in general and in the Jewish cemetery in particular. The solemn atmosphere of the cemetery requires appropriate conduct from all visitors. One should dress properly when visiting the cemetery, and eating and drinking is not allowed in the cemetery. It is also forbidden to gather grass or flowers for personal use, but trimming the plants, as part of cemetery maintenance, is permissible and commendable.
Sitting on a gravestone, which directly covers a grave is prohibited. One may, however, sit near the graves. One should avoid stepping on a grave, unless there is no alternative way to access other graves or to perform burials. It is customary to request forgiveness of the deceased if one must step on his or her grave.
Thank you to all who have served and continue to serve in our military. We appreciate you.