Memorial Day: A penny isn’t much

STAFF PHOTO BY TAMMY MALGESINI At the Hermiston Cemetery, numerous coins grace the headstone of Lance Cpl. James B. Huston Jr., who died in 2004 while serving with the U.S. Marine Corps in Iraq. According to tradition, coins on the headstone signifies visitors to the veteran's grave.

I spent 45 minutes and left a penny on the headstones of 75 veterans Monday at the Hermiston Cemetery.

It’s not much — not even an hour and not even a dollar. But, for me, it’s a way to commemorate Memorial Day.

Sometimes people forget the meaning behind the holiday. It’s not merely a day off from work (although I did work swing hours) or a day to have a family barbecue.

It’s a small gesture — extremely small. It doesn’t even compare to the sacrifices made by the men and women who have served in our nation’s military.

I became aware of the tradition of leaving coins on headstones nearly a decade ago. Every year since then, sometime during the Memorial Day weekend, I have grabbed a bag of pennies and headed to the cemetery.

According to information I’ve read, the tradition is a way of paying respects. As the coins increase in value, so does the level of connection the person leaving it has with the deceased:

• A penny means a person visited the grave of the veteran that is buried there.

• A nickel means the person trained or was at boot camp with the deceased veteran.

• A dime represents military personnel who served together.

• A quarter indicates the person was present when the deceased was killed.

Reading the headstone, I learn the date of birth, date of death and the branch of the military the veteran served. Then, I say their name and thank them for their service while setting a penny down.

Sometimes, I have to brush away grass that has been cast onto the headstone during the mowing process. And, I’ve even poured water from my bottle to wash away bird droppings. Again, small gestures for people who have made sacrifices to serve our country.

Every once in awhile, someone asks what I’m doing. Such was the case Monday, when an Air Force veteran and his wife noticed the “U.S. Air Force Academy” T-shirt I was wearing.

They said they had come across a pair of headstones — a man and wife who both served in the Air Force. Dismayed that there were no flowers or flags, they returned with a pair of small bouquets. I thought that was pretty cool.

Of the section I visit each year, I personally know the relatives of less than a handful. And, to me, that makes it even more significant. Those veterans didn’t know me — yet they served our country so that I may reap the benefits of the freedoms we have.

Each year I post a photo on Facebook — not because I want attention — but in hopes that maybe someone else will be moved to do a little something to pause a moment and remember to thank our veterans.

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Tammy Malgesini is the community editor. Her column, Inside my Shoes, includes general musings about life. Contact her at tmalgesini@eastoregonian.com or 541-564-4539.

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