What it means if you see a coin on top of a fallen service member’s grave

Photo credit: Dave Malenfant

There are many poignant ceremonies and traditions surrounding the loss of comrades in battle, some lesser-known rituals don’t get the recognition they deserve.

One such ritual is the placing of coins on the headstones of fallen comrades, a tradition that dates back to the dawn of Greek mythology, when a coin would be required fare to get the departed across the (fictional) rivers Styx and Acheron and into the afterlife. In this instance, however, the coin was placed in the mouth of the deceased.

The ritual of the coin reportedly evolved at some point, later becoming a sign of the significance or bond of the deceased with one whom placed the coin on the headstone. According to widely circulated emails and even (some older news sources,) the practice of placing quarters, nickels and dimes dates back to at least the Vietnam War, when veterans of the unpopular conflict were more discreet about their service in order to avoid persecution.

Leaving the coins was more than a way to denote a visit to the fallen- it was a way to signify just who exactly visited. According to volunteer gravestone cleaner Dave Malenfant, “A nickel means that you and the deceased soldier trained at boot camp together. If you served with the soldier, you leave a dime. A quarter is very significant because it means that you were there when that soldier died.”

While the veracity of the history behind the ritual is disputed, it is widespread to the point of commonplace and no doubt a poignant reminder of the dedication servicemembers have for each other.

Another commonly placed item is the challenge coin, which can vary from unit insignia to deployment memorabilia. One tour website says that the coins left on top of servicemembers’ graves at the Arlington National Cemetery are untouched, though some the coins left in Section 60 -where the majority of people killed in Iraq and Afghanistan are buried- have been archived by curators for a historical memento project.

Because many items -ranging from medals to stuffed animals and photographs- are discarded after a certain amount of time, the curators archive the items and assign them to grave lot numbers, preserving them and returning them to families if requested.

The practice of archival began in 2009, after the US Army Center of Military History wanted a way to prevent such mementos from being discarded like common trash.

“It’s an honor to do it, but you just really hate to see the graves,” Army curator James Speraw said in 2010.

So next time you pass the gravestone of a deceased servicemember and see a coin or other memento nearby, stop and pay attention- you never know what kind of story it will tell.

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  • Andy Wolf

    Andy Wolf is an Appalachian native who spent much of his youth and young adulthood overseas in search of combat, riches, and adventure- accruing decades of experience in military, corporate, first responder, journalistic and advisory roles. He resides in North Carolina's Blue Ridge Mountains with his K9 companion, Kiki.

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