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Cemetery Symbolism: The Meaning Behind Common Grave Mementos

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Alecia Milano
Posted by Alecia Milano on January 30, 2020

When you walk through a cemetery, you may notice that various items have been placed on top of headstones. This is not uncommon. Each item likely pays respect to someone who has passed—often with a personal, unique meaning.

Many grave mementos are rooted in history and tradition. Below, we offer insight on some of the traditional items people place on graves and the meaning behind them.

 

Flowers

Flowers are one of the more common items placed at cemetery gravesites.

The practice of leaving flowers at graves began thousands of years ago when the ancient Greeks would honor fallen warriors. They believed that if the flowers rooted into the ground and grew from the gravesite, then it was a sign that the fallen had found peace.

In more recent history, Decoration Day was started three years after the Civil War as a time for American citizens to decorate the graves of fallen soldiers with flowers. Those in charge of Decoration Day chose to celebrate in the spring on May 30th because they wanted to make sure the most amount of flowers were in bloom across the country. Today, we call Decoration Day Memorial Day.

 

rose red flower lilies

 

What Does Each Kind of Flower Symbolize?

The meanings of flowers can vary, the following are commonly placed in cemeteries and have known symbolism:

  • Deep, dark, crimson roses signify mourning.
  • Red roses represent love, respect or courage.
  • Lilies stand for innocence, purity or majesty.

Placing flowers at the gravesite of a loved one is a way to remember and celebrate those who are no longer with us. Learning to use certain flowers for specific meanings can help all of us honor our loved ones appropriately.

 

Coins

Coins are commonly placed on gravesites and rooted in many various traditions and superstitions.

 

Coins on Veteran Graves

At cemeteries throughout America, it’s common for veteran and current military personnel to leave monetary coins when visiting the grave of a fallen comrade. Each coin left holds its own meaning:

  • Pennies left on the headstone simply let family, friends and other visitors know that you visited.
  • Nickels signify you and the fallen trained together.
  • Dimes show you served together.
  • Quarters tell the family that you were there when the veteran passed away.

While the origin of this tradition is up for debate, many believe it started during the Vietnam War as a result of the political divide. Then, any conversation of the war usually devolved into a more significant discussion about politics. Leaving a coin was an easy way to say you appreciate the soldier's service without discussing the politics of the war.

This custom is more prevalent on Memorial Day, but many veterans will leave a coin whenever they visit the grave of a fallen soldier. Typically, the coins are collected and used to help pay for cemetery maintenance or future veteran funerals.

 

Other Traditions Involving Coins and Money

Though its most prevalent for coins to denote military significance, there are several superstitions that compel people to leave money at the gravesites of their loved ones.

One common tradition is connected to Greek Mythology. The legend says that Charon, the ferryman of Hades, requires payment to transport your loved one’s soul across the river that separates the living from the deceased. Though coins were traditionally placed over the eyes of the individual, that concept has been adopted more generally for coins placed on graves.

Another reference for coins on gravesites is attributed to the notorious Donnelly family. Legend has it that if you leave a coin on the Donnelly tombstone and make a wish, the Donnellys will grant that wish.

The superstition has expanded, and now people believe that their lost loved one will grant them a wish if they leave a penny on their headstone. Or, it can also signify that they will watch over them and bring them good luck.

 

Stones

There are several explanations for visitors leaving small stones or pebbles on graves. For thousands of years, many people memorialized their loved ones by burying them and placing stones on top of their graves.

Known as cairns, these stones were stacked on top of the graves to mark the burial site and to protect them from animals.

Today, leaving a stone on a grave is a way of continuing this tradition of commemorating loved ones. The number of stones placed on top of a headstone equates to the number of visitors.

Additionally, it is a Jewish custom to place a stone or pebble on a headstone in order to keep the soul of the deceased where it belongs.

 

Learn More About Cemetery Symbolism and Memorialization

While it’s interesting to learn the history behind some of these mementos, it’s important to understand that what you place at a loved one’s monument is completely up to you. Some may choose to leave personal mementos that are only significant to them and their loved one.

If you’re interested in finding out more about headstone traditions or memorialization options, subscribe to our blog and receive resources directly in your inbox.

 

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