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The Things We Leave At Graves

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By Dawn DuBois

We may no longer surround our dead with their worldly possessions so they may have nice things in the afterlife as the Egyptians did many years ago. Or, like the Greeks, place money in the mouth of the deceased so that they could pay Charon to ferry them across the River Styx and have a wonderful afterlife. However, these days when visiting a cemetery, you never know what you may see that people have left at a gravesite.

It’s everywhere… I’ve seen it all over the USA and in other countries as well. It is a time honored tradition that goes back centuries in some areas. Social anthropologists find it extraordinarily useful for understanding a culture and the death/burial practices in various regions of the world. Frankly, I love those personal touches… they are deeply moving and heartfelt… genuine and often quite symbolic…

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Around the holidays you might see grave blankets,crosses or wreaths made from evergreens. Don’t forget to check with the cemetery for their particular rules; many cemeteries have special regulations with regards to placing flowers on gravesites.

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For some people placing a stone pays tribute to the dead and leaves a mark of one’s visit. Some Jewish people believe a stone placed on the grave helps to keep the dead from haunting the living. For most of us, stones conjure a harsh image. It does not seem the appropriate memorial for one who has died. But stones have a special character in Judaism. In the Bible, an altar is no more than a pile of stones, but it is on an altar that one offers to God. The stone upon which Abraham takes his son to be sacrificed is called even hashityah, the foundation stone of the world. The most sacred shrine in Judaism, after all, is a pile of stones–the wall of the Second Temple.

In the words of the popular Israeli song, “There are men with hearts of stone, and stones with the hearts of men.”

So why place stones on the grave? The explanations vary, from the superstitious to the poignant.

The superstitious rationale for stones is that they keep the soul down. There is a belief, with roots in the Talmud, that souls continue to dwell for a while in the graves in which they are placed. The grave, called a beit olam (a permanent home), was thought to retain some aspect of the departed soul.

In earlier times one did not mark a grave with a fancy granite stone, it was covered with stones that each mourner added. This not only marked the grave but help keep animals from digging up the deceased.

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Sometimes you may come across some headstones with coins left on them. These coins may have distinct meaning when left on the headstone of someone who lost their life while serving in American’s military. It not only lets the family know that someone else has visited the grave to pay respect but the meanings can vary depending on the denomination of coin. A nickel indicates that the visitor and the deceased trained at boot camp together. A dime means the visitor served with the deceased in some capacity and leaving a quarter tells the family you were with them when they got killed. At many national and state veterans cemeteries the coins are collected and use toward maintaining the cemetery. This tradition of leaving coins can be traced back as far as the Roman Empire.

In American tradition, pennies are left on Benjamin Franklin’s grave. There is a photo of his funeral in Philadelphia; his grave is adorned with pennies, no doubt placed there as a token by some of the 20,000 people that came that day to pay their respects. This custom was eventually associated with good luck and may have spread to graves in general in America. Some use pennies as a prayer token for the line “In God we trust” which appears on the American penny. Of course he is a man famous for the line, “A penny saved, is a penny earned,”.

Some are, perhaps unwittingly, mimicking the ancient tradition where gold coins were buried with the corpse in order to pay the toll charged by Charon, the boatman of the Underworld, for passage to the other side of the river Styx. It was considered impious not to leave this toll with the dead, as it would condemn them to forever wander the shores without cease.

Some believe that to leave a coin on a grave brings good luck. Students in some areas are known to leave pennies on the graves of their school’s founder in the hopes of good luck with exams.

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In America we mark our veterans gravesites with the America flag and many National cemetery across the country have volunteers place wreaths on the graves at holiday time. Have you ever seen ladies wearing red poppies on Memorial Day or an increase in red poppies on graves at certain times of the year? If you have, that may be because red poppies are a symbol for our soldiers, particularly on Memorial Day. In 1915, inspired by the poem “In Flanders Fields,” Moina Michael replied with her own poem:


We cherish too, the Poppy red
That grows on fields where valor led,
It seems to signal to the skies
That blood of heroes never dies.

She then conceived of an idea to wear red poppies on Memorial Day in honor of those who died serving the nation during war. She was the first to wear one, and sold poppies to her friends and co-workers with the money going to benefit servicemen in need. Later a Madam Guerin from France was visiting the United States and learned of this new custom started by Ms.Michael and when she returned to France, made artificial red poppies to raise money for war orphaned children and widowed women. This tradition spread to other countries.

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Whatever one chooses to leave behind in remembrance of a passed loved one; it most certainly holds some sort of personal meaning. Respecting what others leave on graves is very important. What may seem gaudy or ugly to you, may have very deep meaning to the person who left it.

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Of course, you should always respect the individual cemeteries rules. Some things are not allowed in certain areas, and it is always a shame when someone leaves something, only to find out later it has been removed for violation of a rule.

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