Gifts for the Dead

Gifts for the Dead

One of the oddest yet common American traditions, is to deposit coins atop grave markers. The general practice of leaving behind items at grave sites is a long standing tradition for many cemetery visitors. Whether, an American flag at the grave of a soldier, toys at the plots of children, or a vase of flowers for a loved one, leaving behind gifts for the dead is a tradition, in many cultures. It is clear that the types of gifts left at graves may hold a cultural, and personal significance.

The ancient Egyptians built grand pyramid temples to honor, protect, and immortalize deceased Pharaohs. The burial chamber would typically contain items that the Pharaoh might want in his next life (or afterlife). Many Jews still practice a tradition of leaving stones on the graves of the deceased. The reason behind this tradition, is blurry. Some people believe it is to mark visitation, other believe it is to keep the fresh souls of the deceased in place. Mexicans, celebrate El Dia de Muertos, a day of celebration honoring the dead. Family members bring with them flowers (cempasúchil), bread (Pan de Muerto), and fruits in baskets covered with self embroidered napkins, as well as the copal, incense, that they will burn so that the aroma will help guide the returning souls.

In American cemeteries, one would be amiss not to notice coins (mostly pennies) left atop graves and tombs. Many historians believe the act of leaving behind coins for the dead predates Greek and Roman Civilizations. The act of placing two coins over the deceased’s eyes as payment to the ferryman, (safe passage through the underworld) continues today. Some people believe the act of leaving pennies or coins at grave markers, was rooted in the life and death of Benjamin Franklin. “A penny saved is a penny earned,” was never uttered by Benjamin Franklin. However, their is still a common belief that Benjamin Franklin uttered that famous phrase, when all credit belongs to the September, 1899 issue of the Pall Mall Magazine. Perhaps, this may explain why so many pennies are found atop Mr. Franklin’s burial plot. Another possible reason coinage is left at graves may be similar to the act of tossing pennies in a well, for good luck. So the next time you plan to pass through a graveyard or cemetery don’t forget to bring some extra pocket change to leave behind at graves that catch the eye.

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