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 leaving of coins in the graves of citizens began as yet another way of equipping the dear departed for the afterlife.
While visiting some cemeteries you may notice that headstones marking certain graves have coins on them, left by previous visitors to the grave. These coins have distinct meanings when left on the headstones of those who gave their life while serving in America’s military, and these meanings vary depending on the denomination of coin.
A coin left on a headstone or at the grave site is meant as a message to the deceased service member’s family that someone else has visited the grave to pay respect.
Leaving a penny at the grave means simply that you visited. A nickel indicates that you and the deceased trained at boot camp together, while a dime means you served with them in some capacity. By leaving a quarter at the grave, you are telling the family that you were with the service member when he/she was killed.
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.
In the US, this practice became common during the Vietnam war, due to the political divide in the country over the war; leaving a coin was seen as a more practical way to communicate that you had visited the grave than contacting the soldier’s family, which could devolve into an uncomfortable argument over politics relating to the war.
Another tradition is the leaving of “challenge coins” by fellow veterans. These coins usually contain the emblem of the deceased’s military company or unit, and fellow service members leave them to pay tribute. Sometimes the challenge coin can have a deeper meaning or even tie back to the service member who left it.