Currency of the Dead: Why Do We Leave Coins On Graves?

Currency of the Dead: Why Do We Leave Coins On Graves?


I visited the graves of Bruce and Brandon Lee back in 2000. It was impossible to not be moved by all the offerings left at the site. There were flowers, letters, little statues, trophies, and coins. I must have gotten there early enough to see it all stacking up. The groundskeeper came by to clear some of it away. He said it had to be done at least once a day.

I watched as he worked, but I noticed he left the coins behind. There were the familiar coins – quarters, dimes, etc – and not so familiar coins. Some of the coins had different shapes. One coin I noticed in abundance was pennies. Good old U.S. pseudo copper stamped with the most haunted – and occasional vampire slaying – President Abe Lincoln.


I reached in my pocket and found a few pennies. I decided to join the tradition, and I left them at the graveside as an offering. I gave them both a salute with a heartfelt thank you, and I walked away.

At the time, I didn’t realize I had joined one of the oldest traditions of mankind.

Why Do People Leave Pennies on Graves?

You can find evidence of leaving coins at a grave throughout history. It’s possible this is the precursor to leaving flowers at the grave. Pennies are cheaper than flowers by their very nature. A penny you own is still a part of you in spirit, and it shows anyone who visits the grave that the departed is still loved by someone.

There is also a tradition associated with good luck by leaving a penny at a grave. It appears Ben Franklin can take the credit. Well, his mourners getting credit would be more accurate. Franklin may not have approved of leaving pennies behind. He did say, “A penny saved is a penny earned.” Nevertheless, visitors to his grave toss pennies over the iron gate protecting his tombstone believing it will garner them good luck.

There’s also a deeper tradition of coins at the grave. It’s one many are likely unaware of.

Meet The Ferryman

You’ve heard about him. You’ve seen him in movies and demented cartoons. Ladies and Gentleman, please allow me to introduce Charon!

KHARON (or Charon) was the ferryman of the dead, an underworld daimon (spirit) in the service of King Haides. He received the shades of the dead from Hermes, who gathered them from the upper world and guided them to the shores of the Akherousian mere. From there Kharon transported them in his skiff to a final resting place in Hades, the land of the dead, on the other side. The fee for his service was a single obolos coin which was placed in the mouth of a corpse at burial. Those who had not received due burial and were unable to pay his fee, would be left to wander the earthly side of the Akheron, haunting the upper world as ghosts.

— Source: Theoi Greek Mythology

Did you catch the important part? It was the obolos coin inserted into the mouth of the deceased at burial in order to pay for passage. We don’t really do that anymore. The tradition has changed.

Coins went from the mouth to the eyes to the feet, and now we just place them at the grave. However the coin gets there, the idea is the same. You’re trying to assist the deceased to gain passage from this world to the next one.

It’s also interesting to note that the boatman or ferryman of the dead isn’t unique to any culture. There are myths of these beings in many ancient religions and cults, even among those predating the Ancient Greeks.

Whatever your motivation might be, the next time you leave a coin at a graveside, remember you’re taking part in a tradition going back a few thousand years. Religion not included or required.

Sometimes The Coins Come Back

My best friend died a couple years ago.

Dan was a great guy, and he was funny as hell. He was a king of smart ass comedy. His humor is one thing that even slight acquaintances remember about him. That’s why I’m not surprised by what you’re about to learn.

One of our pack couldn’t make it to the funeral. She had to work. This meant she didn’t know where Dan was buried. So I offered to take her to the site. We did some crying together. It was a rough time.

Dan didn’t have a headstone yet. It was just a place marker and a mound of dirt at that time. All the previous days flowers were stacked on top of the mound. It was just a freshly filled grave. Ugly.

I tossed a penny on the mound when we left, and said, “Just in case the ferryman needs another coin, brother.” Then we drove home.

I went to work later that night at the bar. Around 11:00 that night, a couple comes in to have a few drinks. I haven’t seen them in the bar for months. They ask where Dan is hiding. He’s normally at the corner of the bar with his laptop. It’s abnormal not seeing him there. I had to inform them of what happened. They took the news well enough. They didn’t really know him very well.

At midnight, the woman of that couple went to the restroom. When she returned, she tripped and fell right at the corner of the bar where Dan always sat. I went over to make sure she was alright.

No blood. Bo bruise. No foul. She got off the floor, flipped something at me and said, “Here’s your penny back.”

Normally I would laugh at something like that. But normally it wouldn’t happen on the same day I visited his grave, at the corner where he sat (often playing like he would trip people), and getting one penny flipped back at me after I tossed one on his grave.

It’s the timing that makes things weird.

Mischief? Dan? Noooooo …

Dan wasn’t done.

I went with a friend to visit his grave on his birthday a couple months ago. We stayed for a while and shared stories our Dan stories. There was more laughter and fewer tears than previous visits.

Life is different without him around, but we both feel like he still makes an appearance from time to time. I placed three pennies on his grave before we left. It was time to get home. I had to get ready for work.

I stopped at Subway on the way to work. I put in my order, and handed the girl my money. She looked in her register and said, “I’m sorry. I don’t know what happened. I didn’t notice we ran out of nickels and dimes. Is it alright if I give you pennies back?”

I can’t stop smiling when these things happen.

Like I said, it’s the timing of these events that make them stand out. These become weird and wonderful moments within the right context. They don’t happen on a hot afternoon buying ice cream. They occur at moments that make you pause and take notice.

I have to ask myself if Dan is reaching out and having a laugh somehow. It would assume he and other spirits have a degree of influence on our world that we don’t understand. I don’t know. I can’t answer that in a satisfactory way.

I’m just grateful the possibility is there. No matter how slim.


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  1. Devi Spring

    06/27/2012 at 11:05 AM

    I also think it’s quite likely that some people are paying the spirit of Lee in exchange for his aid with some matter. In many folk traditions, hoodoo included, working with spirits of the dead is extremely common.

    When one works with the dead, one asks the spirit to help them with a circumstance in their life that that particular spirit would likely be suited to, and if they perceive agreement from the spirit they are expected to pay them for their services…and leaving coins (pennies and dimes are most common) is one of the more traditional ways of doing so. Other common offerings for spirit-payment would be a liquor such as whiskey or rum, or (if such details are known) some other foods or beverages known to have been appreciated by that specific spirit.

    Some things that one might approach a spirit like Lee for would be enhanced skills in martial arts, or increased fame in action-related entertainment industry projects.

    I would bet that at least a portion of those coins are from spiritual practitioners asking Lee for favors!

    • Lonnie Scott

      06/27/2012 at 11:27 AM

      You’re absolutely right, Devi.

      I suspected some of the stranger looking coins on Lee’s grave were from spiritual practitioners of some kind. There’s no question the impact that man had on my life and countless others.

  2. S.

    06/28/2012 at 9:31 AM

    And, according to magical symbolism, the coin, pentacle, or pentacle represent worldly matters. Occasionally something like the material concerns of the magician. It’s been noted before that the relinquishing of the coin to the ferryman is giving up the one thing you won’t be needing anymore beyond the veil.

  3. Bob Jase

    06/28/2012 at 8:01 PM

    Remember not everyone has coins left for them – its a bitch to be stranded on the banks of the Styx because Charon only takes passengers with exact change.

    • Greg Newkirk

      06/28/2012 at 8:05 PM

      Nice to know the Underworld transit system works so much like Chicago. I fully expect to see a homeless man taking a dump in the boat.

      • Lonnie Scott

        06/28/2012 at 8:11 PM

        Where there are the less fortunate and homeless, there ye shall find wine and liquor. Who knew? So, refer to Devi’s comment above. Give them some Hoodoo love.

    • Palemoon

      01/15/2016 at 10:20 PM

      Long story I just lost my father
      (12/14/15), He passed away very young and totally unexpected. Anyway, I read your comment and made me crack up!!! I haven’t laughed or anything since he passed away. I just wanted to say THANK YOU!!

  4. david b cordick

    05/28/2014 at 11:06 AM

    very interesting your view and points on the pennies on the graves. there is another tradition that started after ww1, take a look sometime, it is not generally considered funny, but you might be interested. pennies on military markers

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  6. Carol

    08/25/2014 at 8:14 AM

    I was visiting my mom’s & dad’s grave, and before i left we went to visit this babies gave ( my mom before her passing for yearsalways visited her grave) Somehow my mom was attracted to this grave, as we didn’t even know this baby..I noticed after visiting the babies grave and went to another babies grave that there were 3 quarters on it..Why?

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  10. Scott Philbrook

    02/10/2015 at 11:19 AM

    Great piece Lonnie! Love the story about your friend. Too interesting to ignore.

  11. Johnny Jensen

    10/26/2015 at 7:37 AM

    If we don’t have pennies? Can we put other amount of money? Just asking? Anyway thanks for this article!

  12. Lonnie Scott

    06/27/2016 at 5:22 PM

    Someday I should write an expansion of leaving goods at graves and why.

  13. William White

    06/27/2016 at 7:41 PM

    When I went to Bruce Lee’s grave years ago, someone had left a bottle of Aspirin on the grave!

  14. Susan

    06/27/2016 at 6:55 PM

    People always leaves coins on my Mom and Step Dad’s Virgin Mary Monument. Its quite comforting.

  15. Simon Valcourt

    06/28/2016 at 2:18 AM

    ”I honor the enemy by placing a rock on his beautiful grave” -Red Baron

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