CLARKSBURG, W.Va. (WBOY) — As folks head out to pay their respects to military members who made the ultimate sacrifice while serving their country for Memorial Day, they may see coins and flowers placed on some headstones.
Both are rooted not only in the tradition of Memorial Day but farther back and in cultures outside the United States.
Flowers are actually key to the modern Memorial Day tradition, which started with the first “Decoration Day” on May 5, 1868, according to the National Constitution Center. The Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) established Decoration Day as a time to decorate the graves of the many who died in the Civil War with flowers at Arlington National Cemetery with flowers.
It is believed that the practice of placing flowers on graves stretches back to ancient Greece, according to the American Rose Society.
But, the GAR later decided Decoration Day should be observed on May 30, because that timing would mean that flowers would be in bloom all across the country.
Over the years, the tradition spread, and more wars were fought, with those soldiers who died being honored as well.
Then, in 1968, Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which established Memorial Day as the last Monday in May in order to create a three-day weekend for federal employees, according to the U.S. Army Airborne & Special Operations Museum, giving us the variable date for the holiday.
Additionally, different types of flowers are said to symbolize different things, with pink carnations meaning “I’ll never forget you,” roses symbolizing love and poppies symbolizing consolation, according to the Old Farmer’s Almanac.
Coins were also common in ancient funeral practices, with researchers citing Greek and Latin literature mentioning the dead being buried with coins in their mouths for payment to “Charon,” the boatman who would ferry their loved ones’ souls across the River Styx and into the underworld.
The practice has evolved since, with pennies being left at the graves of some iconic American figures’ headstones to mark their visit. So many people have tossed pennies on founding father Benjamin Franklin’s grave that it’s required restoration efforts.
In military culture, the denominations of the coins have further meaning, with a penny meaning that someone visited, a nickel meaning that the visitor went to boot camp with the deceased, a dime meaning they served with the deceased in some capacity and a quarter being very significant, meaning the visitor was there with the deceased when they died, according to the Montana Department of Military Affairs.
Regardless of what you place on headstones, remember that all cemeteries must eventually be cleaned up for the season, and consider asking how you can help.