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Coins on a soldier's headstone: What do they mean?

SHREVEPORT, La. (KTAL/KMSS) – Why do people leave coins on top of military gravestones? Similar practices exist in many cultures and have a history stretching back centuries.

In modern times, this tradition is a way for service members to honor those who are no longer with us. It also shows the families that someone came to pay their respects and remember their loved ones.

According to the Department of Military Affairs, the tradition stretches back to the Roman Empire, where soldiers would insert coins into the mouths of fallen soldiers. The coins enabled them to pay the mythical boatman Charon to take them across the River Styx into the afterlife.

The U.S. military adopted the tradition of placing coins on service members’ graves during the Vietnam War. According to the DMA, anti-war sentiment created a charged political climate that could make it difficult to speak with the family members of their fallen comrades. Using the coins provided them a way to pay their respects peacefully.

But there’s a deeper meaning behind each coin, depending on which was left at the gravesite.

Meaning of coins on military graves
Meaning of coins on military graves (Source: KTAL/KMSS staff)
  • A penny left behind means that someone stopped to pay their respects.
  • If someone leaves a nickel on a grave, it means they served in boot camp together.
  • A dime means they both served in the military together in some capacity.
  • If someone leaves a quarter on a grave, it means they were there when the soldier was killed.

These coins are usually collected from gravesites periodically and used to maintain cemeteries. They can also go toward burial costs for homeless veterans.

USAF 91st Security Forces Group challenge coin
U.S. Air Force 91st Security Forces Group challenge coin (Source: KTAL/KMSS staff)

Another coin often left on the graves of military members is a “challenge coin.” These are small coins or medallions with the insignia of an organization or unit. They’re presented to service members by their commanders to recognize them for their achievements.

Although there are traditions and rules on how to use the coins in a challenge, they are also given as mementos. A service member might leave one on the grave of a person who served in their unit.

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