Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Token of Love

It is customary to leave flowers and gifts at the headstones of our loved ones. But have you ever wondered what some of them mean? While something left behind for a loved one can be something personal between the two of you, some things have a cultural background.

The most common items left on graves, besides flowers, are stones and rocks. This is primarily a Jewish custom. In the Old Testament, the sons of Jacob and Rachel placed stones over their mother’s grave. One reason people place stones on graves is that they believe it keeps the soul down. This theory, with roots in the Talmud, cites that souls con­tinue to dwell for a while in the graves in which they are placed. The grave, called a beit olam (a permanent home), was thought to retain some aspect of the departed soul.

Rocks are favored over flowers on Jewish graves because flowers were considered pagan. Also, rocks have a more permanent symbolism than flowers, which fade and eventually die. This practice has gone beyond Jewish custom and is now embraced by people of all faiths. The reason is simple. It’s an easy way to leave a small memento that someone was there to visit the grave, to honor the deceased.

Another common item left on graves is a coin. This practice has its origins in ancient Greek mythology. Kharon (or Charon) was the ferryman of the dead, an underworld demon. He received the shades of the dead from Hermes, who gathered them from the upper world and guided them to the shores of the Akheron, one of the five rivers in Hades. From there, Kharon took them in his boat to a final resting place in Hades, the land of the dead, on the other side. The fee was a single obolos coin, which was placed in the mouth of a corpse at burial. Those who had not received due burial and were unable to pay their fee would be left to wander the earthly side of the Akheron (some say it is the River Styx and not the Akheron), haunting the upper world as ghosts.

A coin left on a headstone lets the deceased soldier’s family know that somebody stopped by to pay their respect. Leaving a penny means you visited. A nickel means that you and the deceased soldier trained at boot camp together. If you served with the soldier, you leave a dime. A quarter is very significant because it means that you were there when that soldier died.

Celebrities get their own personalized tokens of love and remembrance. At Oakland Cemetery in Atlanta, visitors leave golf balls at the grave of legendary golfer Bobby Jones. People leave Campbell soup cans on artist Andy Warhol’s grave in homage to his famous painting of…a can of soup. Fans of Elvis leave scores of teddy bears on his grave at Graceland. One famous example involves the grave of Hollywood icon Marilyn Monroe. Her ex-husband (and baseball legend) Joe DiMaggio set up an account with a local florist to put roses on Marilyn’s grave three times a week for 20 years after her death. He reportedly promised her on their wedding night that if anything were to happen to her he would honor her in some special way.

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