Monday, August 15, 2016

Honoring Our Veterans: Coins on Gravestones

This is a guest post from a friend of mine, Diane Furlan, who made a discovery at a faraway graveyard that she visited while on vacation recently.

Earlier this year I was sitting in my dentist’s office and he offered to sell me a vacation package he was unable to use.  When I found out it was to Mackinac Island I jumped at the chance!  Most people never get to visit the island—let alone stay on the island.  In July my husband Steve and I stayed in a lodge at the center of town, right on Mackinac Island.

Stepping off the ferry, after a 20 minute ride across Lake Huron, was like stepping back in time 100 years.  My eyes were as big as saucers!  No motorized vehicles allowed—just horse and carriage, bicycles, or your own two feet.  With six days on an island with a circumference of eight miles, Steve and I wanted to explore as much as we could, knowing we might never get to visit again.  

We thought we would walk the entire eight-mile circumference—but after just four miles in the summer sun we decided there must be a better way to explore this lovely destination!  So one day we ventured out on a multi-speed Trek tandem bicycle.  Now this was the way to travel –me resting comfortably on the back seat while hubby did all the peddling.  (Do you think he noticed?) 

We explored old Fort Mackinac where we had a nice lunch overlooking the town.  When we took a guided horse and buggy tour around Mackinac Island State Park (the majority of the island is preserved as a state park), we noticed an old cemetery.  You see, dear reader, your blog host has recently turned me on to the website!  She has me scouring the countryside for cemeteries to photograph and upload headstones.  

After the tour was over we walked back to the Post Cemetery.  My husband thought it odd—I had to explain my obsession.  I proceeded to drop down low in front of every military gravestone to get the best picture possible to upload.   

Steve and I noticed that many of the headstones had all kinds of coins on them, even dollar bills held down with a stone.  Neither of us had ever seen this before and didn’t know what it meant.  Steve felt bad for the ones that had no coins, so he proceeded to leave a coin here and there—even though we didn’t know what the coins meant!  When we returned home, I got on Google and did some research.

The first website I came to was “Graving with Jenn,” where I found out that coins are left on headstones as a way of paying one’s respects.  There are quite a few ideas as to how the custom began, and one of those is based in Greek mythology.  According to legend, Charon, the ferryman of Hades, required payment of a coin to ferry a loved one’s soul across the River Styx.  People who couldn't pay the fee were said to be doomed to wander the shores of the river for 100 years.

But I was in a military cemetery, so I knew there had to be more to this story—so I Googled some more and came across this from Mix 106 Radio.  I found out that when visiting the grave of a soldier, it is customary to leave a coin to honor them.  A coin left on a headstone lets the deceased soldier's family know that someone stopped by to pay their respects.  I now wish my husband would have left a few more coins on a few more graves!

Upon further Googling (who doesn't love to Google?), my final site was Snopes.  There I found out that some people say that there is meaning to each denomination of coin…  Leaving a penny means you visited; leaving a nickel means you and the decedent trained at boot camp together (I hope we didn't leave any nickels!); a dime means you served with him/her in some capacity; and a quarter means you were with the soldier when he/she was killed.  Nothing is written about the dollar bill, but I say those who received a dollar bill were obviously very much thought of!

Needless to say, this was not just a fun vacation—this was quite the learning vacation.