Originally published in August 2022
By Philip Howard
Historic Howard Street, a one-lane, unpaved road on Ocracoke, has a number of family cemeteries along it, and some of the graves date to the early 1800s.
Visitors to the island often visit the cemeteries to read the epitaphs to glean a bit of island history, and they have come into Village Craftsmen to ask about the significance of coins left on the headstones.
My parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, and great-great grandparents, as well as other more distant relatives, are buried across the street, and placing coins on tombstones is not a traditional local custom.
For millennia, human beings have decorated graves with flowers, shells, stones, feathers, candles and other items.
The modern practice of leaving coins on tombstones apparently has its origin with the military, and this can be seen on the graves at the British Cemetery.
According to posts shared on social media, different coins convey different messages.
- Penny – A penny left at a gravesite means you visited there. It is simply a way to honor a departed service member.
- Nickel – A nickel indicates you trained with the deceased.
- Dime – A dime left on a tombstone means you served with the deceased person in his or her unit, company, ship, etc.
- Quarter – A quarter indicates you were with the deceased when he or she died.
On nonmilitary headstones coins, especially pennies, are favored by those who wish to demonstrate that the deceased has not been forgotten.
Pebbles on gravestones: These stones signify that the deceased was visited, mourned for, respected, supported and honored by the presence of those who’ve visited their memorial.
The Hebrew word for pebble is also a word that means “bond.” Placing a stone on the headstone bonds the deceased with the visitors.
There is no official protocol for leaving coins on tombstones, and the practice has clearly extended beyond honoring just military members as, in some locations, family members have begun honoring their loved ones by placing coins on graves.
For many years Ocracoke islanders decorated graves with flowers and shells, but as mentioned, placing coins on tombstones is not a time-honored Ocracoke Island tradition.
Most of the people buried on Howard Street did not serve in the military.
Even those who did (including members of the U.S. Life Saving Service and U.S. Coast Guard) may not have military markers.
And most, if not all, of the coins seem to have been left by island visitors, not by local family members.
Coins on Howard Street family cemeteries are used to help clean and maintain the graves.
Perhaps visitors simply wish to honor the many generations of sturdy islanders who have lived on this beautiful barrier island and endured storms, hurricanes, shipwrecks, and isolation from the mainland.
The coins left at the British Cemetery are periodically collected and used to fund the annual memorial ceremony.
The above is edited and used by permission from http://www.villagecraftsmen.com.