A Token of Appreciation – Challenge Coin

Written by Brandon Lohr – Veterans Benefits Specialist at Reynolds Jonkhoff Funeral Home 

If you have ever walked through a cemetery, you have probably noticed special mementos left behind by previous visitors and loved ones. The practice of leaving mementos at the graves of loved ones can be observed back to the beginning of time, not only as a way to pay tribute to the departed but also as a way for the living to carry on time-honored traditions. One such tradition that exists if the deceased person was a veteran is the placement of coins on the fallen veteran’s headstone. This practice is thought to have originated in ancient Greek and Roman civilizations. A coin, referred to as “Charon’s obol” in Greek mythology, was placed in the mouth of a fallen soldier and was intended to serve as payment to the ferryman Charon. He assists the deceased’s soul in crossing the rivers Styx and Acheron into the afterlife.

In modern times, a coin left on a veteran’s headstone conveys to the veteran’s family that someone who served with the veteran has visited their grave and paid their respects. Each denomination has its own special meaning: A penny simply signifies someone visited the veteran’s grave and paid their respects.  A nickel indicates the person served with the veteran at boot camp. A dime specifies that they served with the veteran in some capacity. Finally, a quarter left on the grave signifies that the person who left it was with the veteran when they passed away.


Another more modern and increasingly popular tradition is leaving Challenge Coins at the grave of a veteran. A Challenge Coin is a small coin or medallion bearing the branch of service’s insignia or emblem and carried by their respective service members. The origin of these coins can be traced back to the Roman Empire, which rewarded soldiers with these coins for their achievements in battle. The practice of awarding Challenge Coins became increasingly prominent in the United States during World War I. As a reward for his unit, a wealthy lieutenant presented his soldiers with coins made of solid bronze. Later, a member of that squadron was shot down behind enemy lines outside a small French town and was captured by German soldiers with no identification other than his challenge coin. The soldier managed to escape the German outpost only to be recaptured by a French patrol, who mistook him as a German saboteur. Facing execution, the soldier showed his challenge coin to his would-be executors, who instantly recognized the squadron’s insignia from past battles with their American allies. Instead of executing him, the French soldiers presented him with a bottle of wine. 


Regardless of the origins or intentions of those leaving a coin, the practice of paying tribute and honoring veterans, even after death, can be done in any number of ways. Leaving these coins allows the veterans and their families to know that they are respected, revered, and visited by their comrades long after their call to service has ended.

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