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Visiting a Grave: What and Why People Leave Things on Graves

Joe Mabel, CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Joe Mabel, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

When visiting the gravesite of a deceased loved one it is not uncommon to bring something to rest on, or place at the base of, their headstone or grave marker. This act is simply a way of paying one’s respects to the deceased. The two most common items placed at gravesites are flowers and stones. However, many people choose to leave mementos of a more personal nature such as photographs, angels, and small trinkets that have their own significance or special meaning. Today we thought we would share a little history on a few of the more traditional items placed on graves.

Leaving Flowers at a Grave

Believe it or not, the concept of placing flowers on the graves of loved ones began over 2,ooo years ago. It is said, that the ancient Greeks would place flowers on the graves of their warriors. They did this because of their belief, that if the flowers took root and grew from the burial site that it was a sign they had found peace. Romans also used flowers to pay respects and honor their fallen soldiers. They traditionally held a festival called “Day of the Fathers”. This ritual lasted eight-days and the families of the deceased would place flowers on their loved one’s burial site.

In America it is said that this time-honored tradition did not begin until after the Civil War. Many believe that Abraham Lincoln’s death sparked such grief in the American people, that in an effort to express this grief and honor Abraham Lincoln’s life, they came together and adorned his grave with flowers. Thus, began the tradition of placing flowers on the graves of American Soldiers.
Over time the tradition of decorating the graves of American Soldiers had become so popular that in 1868, General John A. Logan proclaimed May 30th as Decoration Day. Many believe this day was chosen specifically because, flowers throughout the country would be in full bloom. This timeless tradition continues to this day; however, we now observe this day on the last Monday in May and is known as Memorial Day. Every year on Memorial Day people come together to decorate the graves of our nation’s fallen soldiers with flowers, wreaths, and flags.

Coins Placed on U.S. Military Headstones

veterans cemetery memorial celebration with American Flag

At national and state veteran cemeteries throughout America it is customary to leave a monetary coin, when visiting the grave of a fallen comrade. Each coin left holds its own connotation. A Penny left on the headstone simply lets family, friends, and other visitors know that you visited. A Nickel says you and the fallen trained together in boot camp and a Dime lets others know that at some point you served together. Leaving a Quarter tells the family that you were there when their soldier and loved one made the ultimate sacrifice.
This tradition began during the Vietnam War, because of the political divide. Leaving a coin made it easier to offer condolences and let the families of a fallen comrade know that their loved one had not been forgot. This practice is more prevalent on Memorial Day; however, many soldiers and vets will leave a coin whenever they visit the grave of a fallen comrade. The coins are often collected and used to help cover cemetery maintenance expenses and even in aid of future veteran funerals.

Stones & Pebbles Placed on a Gravesite

Man’s hand placing a stone on top of a headstone in a cemetery.

The placement of stones on burial sites has a rather interesting history and even though the exact era is unknown, we know it began thousands of years ago. In that time gravesites and cemeteries where non-existent, and the deceased were simply buried in the ground where they lay or in a tomb. To protect both the dead and the living, the opening of a large tomb would be covered with a stone and if the deceased had been buried, then their burial site was covered with rocks. The rocks were used to keep scavengers out of the grave and to keep the spirits in. Eastern European Folklore tells us that stones were added to graves as an anchor, to keep the dead from rising. When visiting a burial site, it was customary for one to add a stone to the pile. Though this tradition of piling rocks over an entire grave has since become extinct, you can still see a few of these burial sites throughout parts of the country.
Today the tradition of placing stones at a gravesite is more commonly associated with Judaism, though this is not the only religion that shares this custom. Placing a stone or pebble on the headstone of a deceased loved one, is an indication that you have visited. In Judaism this tradition is call Mitzvah or the “setting of the stone”. The use of a stone, in leu of flowers, symbolizes strength, stability, and a sense of permanence. Stones placed on headstones are also a comfort to family and friends when they visit, as it shows them that their dearly departed has not forgotten.

When Visiting a Grave

As you can see, items placed on memorials sites have a great deal of meaning, not only to the individuals that have left them, but also to the families and loved ones that visit them. When visiting a grave please do not disturb any of the objects left on the headstone or burial site. If you do move anything to clean or remove debris from the memorial, be respectful and put everything back when you are finished.
Though it is interesting to know the history behind some of these commonly placed items, know that what you place at a loved one’s monument is completely up to you. Some people may prefer to leave objects that only hold an important significance to them, and their loved one, and that is okay. How you choose to show and pay your respects is your choice. We do however hope that you enjoyed learning a little about the history behind objects commonly placed on gravesites.


7 thoughts on “Visiting a Grave: What and Why People Leave Things on Graves”

  1. I didn’t realize that leaving stones and pebbles on headstones not only indicates that you’ve visited but is also a symbol of strength, stability, and permanence. Personally, I love this symbolism because it shows that you stand with the deceased and will continue to do so forever. This makes me wonder if the different stone types, like granite or marble, of headstones have their own symbolism.

  2. I appreciate what you said about leaving stones and pebbles on a gravesite. Buying the right gravemarker is a great way to commemorate your loved one. My friend wants to plan for his funeral, so I’ll help him find the best funeral home to work with.

  3. We will be celebrating our grandmother’s death anniversary and we are planning to replace her headstone. It was mentioned here that when people visit a gravestone, they leave flowers, coins, or sometimes rock for commemoration. Furthermore, it’s recommended to consult funeral homes when in need of headstones.

  4. It’s really interesting that ancient Greeks would put flowers on the graves of their warriors! I love learning why we do traditions such as putting flowers on graves. Next time I visit my grandma, I’ll see if any flowers have taken root anywhere.

  5. It’s interesting to know that it is a tradition for military members to leave a coin int he headstone when visiting a comrade’s grave. My brother and I went to visit our grandfather’s grave, and we noticed a couple of coins on its headstone. I will let my brother know that these coins were left by military comrades that paid a visit to our beloved grandfather.

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