"Never forget," is a phrase often heard after wars or other military conflicts. The question for many is how do we show that we remember? For many Americans decorating the graves of veterans and those who died while serving in any branch of the armed services on Memorial Day is the answer.
Flags and flowers are among the most common symbols of remembrance displayed on Memorial Day. Mementos and other tokens are also left at grave sites to let others, especially family members, know that memories of the deceased live on. Although some of the mementos are very personal and not necessarily meant to be understood as much as just seen, others, especially coins, can communicate more specific messages.
Some of the most common meanings of coins left on military graves, whether on Memorial Day or any other day, include:
Pennies - A penny left on a military grave, or perhaps even any grave, means someone has visited. The visitor may or may not be a veteran or member of the armed services. According to some, a penny is simply a tangible symbol of paying respects and thus can also be found on civilian graves.
Nickels - Individuals who went through boot camp or basic training with the deceased may leave a nickel when they visit a grave. They may also indicate the two trained together in other capacities during their service, especially if they reserved additional specialized training of any kind.
Dimes - These small coins carry big meaning because they show the visitor served with the decreased at some point in their military careers. They may not have served together for long or known each other well, but for some period of time, they were in the same place having similar experiences.
Quarters - When a quarter is left on a military grave it means the visitor was with the individual when they died. The visitor could have been a buddy, but they may also have been a field medic or hospital/medical staff.
All these coins communicate a connection not just to the individual buried there but to their family and community too. The message is comforting. Yet as a memorial tradition, the leaving of coins is only about a decade old, so older veterans may not be aware of the meanings behind the coins found and left on graves.
One coin most service members will recognize the significance of when left on a military grave is a challenge coin. These coins are used to identify comrades-in-arms, similar to nickels. Challenge coins, however, are given to members of particular units or to veterans of specific actions so that they can identify each other in the future. They have been used since World War I so they have a more extensive history than other coins. For a challenge coin to be left on a tombstone is a great honor and should be treated as such.
As with flowers, flags, and other mementos, coins are not left indefinitely at grave sites. Challenge coins may be the only exception to this; however, they too may be collected at some point although usually not for many years. Common coins are often deposited into a special fund used by the cemetery to help pay for upkeep, including cleaning and restoration or to aid in covering the costs of burying indigent veterans.
These coins may not have much monetary value. Their symbolic value can be immense. What is most important is that we, as individuals and as communities, remember those who gave their lives in service to our country, whether in recent conflicts or wars fought generations ago.