If you were to visit Fort McArthur cemetery you might notice a few things. The first would be the 16 grave stones sitting under a shade tree. The second would be the peacefulness of the place. Back a lane, the cemetery has a tranquility to it that most cemeteries do. The last thing you may notice is the coins sitting on tops of the gravestones.
When we held our wreath laying ceremony on Memorial Day this year, I had a couple people ask me what the coins meant on the graves. In my many readings of events of history, I knew I had come across the information but was unable to recall it at that time. One of the joys of getting older, I guess. So, I decided that I would look it up and share what I found.
The leaving of coins on graves goes back as far as Roman times and is done for those who have served in the military. The coins are meant as a message to that soldier’s family that someone else has visited to pay their respect. So what do the different coins represent? A penny simply means that you visited. A nickel shows that you and the deceased trained at boot camp together while a dime shows that you served with the person in some capacity. Finally, by leaving a quarter you are showing that you were with that soldier when they were killed. Coins left on graves in state and national cemeteries are typically collected after a certain period of time and used to help maintain the cemetery.
During the Vietnam War, contacting a soldier’s family could lead to uncomfortable situations. The political unrest of the era and the divide over the war itself made life difficult for soldiers and their families. Leaving a coin on the grave was a way of letting their families know they were not forgotten. It was also seen as a “down payment” to buy their fallen comrades a beer or to play a hand of cards in the afterlife. Leaving coins on military graves would also cross over to non-military personnel. Pennies symbolized that the person was not forgotten, a nickel means you went to school with that person, a dime you worked together and a quarter means you were there when they died.
So next time you are at a cemetery and you see coins laying on top of a gravestone, please leave them alone. They have been placed there as a sign of respect for those of have left this world. And if you are so incline, leave a coin to show those still living that this person is still remembered.