It seemed eerie to me that a visiting musician placed two pennies on the grave marker of Bix Beiderbecke during a visit last week to his gravesite at Oakdale Memorial Gardens in Davenport. They were left by Sam Rocha, a California cornet player whose horn work would have pleased Bix.
The pennies did not seem eerie to Deb Williams, office manager for the cemetery. She often hears of coins on graves.
The seemingly unusual tribute — coins or pebbles or something other than flowers — occurs at other Quad-City cemeteries, too.
COINS ON THE GRAVES of those who rest at Rock Island National Cemetery, Arsenal Island, have a distinct meaning. “We find many, many coins on the burial markers of the military. They are sentimental things,” says groundskeeper Scott Lamb.
“The meaning depends on the denomination of the coin. It’s a message to the deceased service person’s family that someone was there and that someone cared.”
Lamb has a list of what the coins mean. Leaving a penny at the grave means simply that someone visited. It could be a friend or relative or someone who served in the deceased's outfit or with whom he shared a shelter half (tent) on bivouac.
A nickel indicates that the visitor and the deceased trained together, basic training or boot camp. A dime indicates that they served in the same battle or encounter. Leaving a quarter at the grave tells the family — or someone — that the visitor was with the service person when they were killed.
THE COIN SALUTE began during World War II and grew in the Vietnam War. Some veterans leave coins at gravesites as a down payment to buy their fallen comrades a beer or play a hand of cards when they finally are united.
“We just leave the coins where they were left, and finally remove them,” says Lamb of National Cemetery, where 32,000 are buried. “Years ago, we didn’t leave the pennies on the stone very long because they contained copper that would leave a stain on the marker. Now, after a while, we wedge the coins in the ground alongside the marker.”
At Chippiannock Cemetery in Rock Island, groundkeepers have come to expect coins or other tributes on gravestones.
Coins on graves began in the seventh century B.C., when societies took to monetary systems. Grieving relatives and friends left coins alongside the burial sites to serve the dearly departed on their way to the other world. Time marched on, and in many centuries later, coins were and other items were placed on the graves of deceased. Some leave candy bars, or packs of cigarettes.
Sometimes, tributes are to recall some important time in the life of the person buried in that plot. I am one who leaves remembrances — not pennies — but a small pumpkin at the grave of our son, Peter, who was born on Halloween.
Overall, pennies are a favorite by those who wish to demonstrate that the deceased has not been forgotten and that loved ones still visit.