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Statewide Culture 0

Pennies on Graves: A Tradition of Remembrance


In many cultures worldwide, people place pennies on graves to show respect for the deceased and symbolize remembrance. The practice originated in the Middle Ages when pennies were placed on the eyes of the deceased to keep them closed. Others think it’s tied to the early Roman empire, where a coin in the mouth was something a deceased person would take into their afterlife.

Over time, the tradition of placing pennies on graves evolved, and people began placing pennies on graves to honor the dead and even pay specific respects to military families without getting into political spats after battles like the Vietnam War.

While many consider flowers a more appropriate gesture, we must remember that these traditions are centuries old. While it’s convenient for us to stop at a grocery store for a flower bouquet or a hobby store to get an artificial arrangement, in times past, families would travel long distances by foot, horseback or wagon; when possible, they would stop and pay respects to ancestors for whom they couldn’t attend a funeral. A stone or coin from their pocket may have been the only option beyond wildflowers to show honor to a deceased loved one.

My History Memories

Growing up, I remember we would attend a family reunion on the weekend surrounding Memorial Day. We had a pre-summer potluck at the little country church that owned the property where my grandmother is buried. She passed when I was seven, so much of my memory of that event involved walking over to her headstone and paying honor to her life.

My parents would also use the time to connect the stories of the names on the headstones around her. Our family roots run many generations in the same county, and for my mom’s side of the family, I could fill out much of our family tree with names I could see in a 360-degree view.

In later years, my dad passed on his interest in chasing family history by visiting family cemeteries. My journey from growing up in Texas to living in my adult years in Arkansas has allowed me to connect some familiar stories to places I love to travel.

As we looked at hidden historical cemeteries in the woods, I noticed that when we found centuries-old headstones, there would often be pennies or small rocks on the corners of smooth stones. Some stones had several pennies, some just one, and others had nickels or dimes.

My curiosity led me to understand that these pennies were an old ritual of honoring a loved one. And somehow, hidden in the woods with no security cameras or anyone watching, the pennies remained. Many showed rust from the weather; others were shiny, fresh copper, catching the curious eye.

A Penny From My Pocket

Let’s break down some of the most popular reasons why people place pennies on graves:

  • To show respect. Pennies are a small and humble gesture, but they can be a powerful way to show respect for the deceased. By placing a penny on a grave, people acknowledge the life of the person who has died and show that they care by their visit.
  • To ask for a blessing. Some people believe that placing a penny on a grave can bring good luck or a blessing from the deceased.
  • To wish the deceased well. Pennies are often placed on graves to wish the deceased well in the afterlife.
  • To continue a tradition. In many cultures, placing pennies on graves is a tradition passed down from generation to generation. People do it because it is what their parents and grandparents did and because it is a way to connect with their heritage.

There is a typical code used in placing coins.

  • A penny means a visit
  • Military: nickel = you trained in boot camp with the deceased veteran; dime = you and the deceased veteran served together; quarter = a soldier who was together when they passed
  • Non-military: nickel = you went to school together; dime = you worked together; quarter = you were present when the deceased passed
  • What happens with the coins? Cemeteries typically conduct a monthly sweep and use the coins to fund maintenance.
  • People of the Jewish faith will, by tradition, leave stones instead of coins.

Image used with permission from the Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism.

Whatever the reason, the practice of placing pennies on graves is a touching and meaningful way to remember and honor the dead.

With Memorial Day on the horizon, where we remember military men and women who lost their lives in active duty, may we not forget to pay honor in whatever way we can, with gratitude for the freedoms we experience daily.

One of my personal places of solace and resetting my heart is to take a quiet drive through a National Cemetery near my house. This place of solitude centers me. It offers perspective and gives my heart a place to pray and offer gratitude.

May we never forget and always honor those who’ve gone before us.

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Keisha (Pittman) McKinney lives in Northwest Arkansas with her chicken man and break-dancing son. Keisha is passionate about connecting people and building community, seeking solutions to the everyday big and small things, and encouraging others through the mundane, hard, and typical that life often brings. She put her communications background to work as a former Non-profit Executive Director, college recruiter and fundraiser, small business trainer, and Digital Media Director at a large church in Northwest Arkansas. Now, she is using those experiences through McKinney Media Solutions and her blog @bigpittstop, which includes daily adventures, cooking escapades, #bigsisterchats, the social justice cases on her heart, and all that she is learning as a #boymom! Keisha loves to feed birds, read the stack on her nightstand, do dollar store crafts, cook recipes from her Pinterest boards, and chase everyday adventures on her Arkansas bucket list.

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