Gifts for the Dead


Gifts for the Dead

Have you ever been to a cemetery and seen coins atop a grave? Chances are you have. The general practice of  leaving  behind gifts for the dead at grave sites is a long standing tradition. Cemetery visitors leave all sorts of items at graves. Whether, an American flag at the grave of a soldier, toys at the plots of children, a vase of flowers for a loved one, or even a plate of Colonel Sanders fried chicken!

Fried chicken and drinks gift left for the dead at this grave.
Fried chicken and drinks left for the dead

Leaving behind gifts for the dead is a tradition, found in many cultures. The types of gifts left at graves usually hold a cultural and personal significance.

Cultural Rituals

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 gifts of stones on the graves of the dead. 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 (cempasĂșchil), 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 as a gift 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.

A penny saved is a penny earned

Some people believe the act of leaving pennies or coins at grave markers, was rooted in the life and death of Benjamin Franklin. The euphemism, “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. All credit however belongs to the September, 1899 issue of the Pall Mall Magazine. The magazine company printed that now famous quote without any help of Mr Franklin. Perhaps, this may explain why so many pennies are found atop Mr. Franklin’s burial plot.

Another possible reason coinage is left as gifts for the dead 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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