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Coins for the Dead

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"For the ferryman. The ferryman who takes their body across the river and into the land of the dead. If she don't have the money to pay him, she'd be left to wander forever lost between the two worlds."
Inspector Abberline, From Hell

In any culture, when a person dies there are always certain funeral rites to be upheld. Some bury their dead in wooden boxes, others cremate the remains and so on. One particularly ancient tradition is placing a coin or two with the deceased, usually either over their eyes or under their tongue, to ensure their safe passage to the afterlife. The general idea is that there is someone waiting to ferry their soul somewhere, but that this individual must be paid properly. If he is not satisfied, the soul cannot pass on and is stuck. Perhaps they become a ghost, perhaps they are stuck in limbo or perhaps they are damned outright.

However, more mundanely, the trope is often more about respect for the dead. Whether there is truly some sort of being requiring payment to carry the soul or even whether there is some kind of afterlife in the first place is generally not the point. Instead, it is simply intended to be a respectful gesture to the recently deceased. Naturally, the idea of taking said coins from a dead body is considered to be even worse than grave robbing.

See also Due to the Dead regarding other forms of respect towards dead bodies, even those of enemies. The Ferryman is often the one who takes the coins given to the dead.

As this can be a Death Trope, unmarked spoilers abound. Beware.


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    Anime & Manga 
  • In the episode of Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex "Automated Capitalism", Section 9 try to foil a communist assassin armed with a shotgun that shoots rolls of change, who wants to kill a reclusive mathematician who's been playing the stock markets and using the returns to buy enormous quantities of gold. It turns out he was Dead All Along, having died some time ago with nobody to check up on him while his computer program had continued to play the stocks in order to amass gold, so Togusa uses a few of the assassin's coins to cover his eyes as a mark of respect. The end of the episode shows... something (presumably the day trader AI)... repaying the favor by improving Togusa's family investments dramatically, unbeknownst to him or his wife.

    Comic Books 
  • In a 1980s Batman comic, a serial killer is murdering Gotham's homeless by giving them two gold coins coated in poison. When they die, he then places the coins on their eyes.
  • In The Sandman (1989) comics, Dream hears a story that his sister Death becomes mortal for one day every century so that she can experience the life of a mortal and gain empathy for living creatures. In the spinoff comic Death: The High Cost of Living we see her spending her day as a mortal in the 1990s. At the end of the day the mortal version of Death dies, and a sorcerer who had been trying to capture her, (and, it's implied, end his own immortal life) places a pair of coins over her eyes in respect.

    Fan Works 
  • RiverClan cats in Tell me about your Ancestors do a cat equivalent. They let their dead float down the river. During the funeral, they place death-flowers, rocks, and trinkets with the cat.

    Films — Animation 
  • In 9, the Stitchpunks place a single large coin over 2's open, empty eyes when putting him to rest.
  • Scrooge's Establishing Character Moment in A Christmas Carol (2009) comes when he takes the pennies that had been placed on the recently deceased Marley's eyes to make back the funeral cost, saying "tuppence is tuppence".
  • Puss in Boots: The Last Wish: While his party is fleeing some henchmen on a carriage, Puss dumps a bag full of coins to draw a crowd to block the villains. A moment later, Puss catches sight of the Wolf that's been hunting him throughout the movie in the crowd, who puts a pair of coins over his eyes and points at Puss to remind him that the Wolf isn't done with him. It also foreshadows The Reveal that the Wolf is actually Death himself.
  • Scrooge: A Christmas Carol has Marley's ghost still wearing the gold coins over his eyes, with Scrooge seeing a vision of his own spirit doing the same after being placed in the grave in his visions of Christmas Yet to Come.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • In The Boondock Saints, the MacManus brothers place coins over the eyes of their execution victims.
  • Clash of the Titans (1981). In order to reach Medusa, Perseus must cross the river Styx using the boat of the ferryman, Charon. His friend gives him a coin that he uses to pay Charon for the journey.
  • From Hell:The main character Inspector Abberline places coins upon a murdered woman's eyes, explaining to his friend/partner that that is a tradition so she can pay the ferryman to carry her to the afterlife. This comes full circle at the end of the movie, when Abberline himself has died and his friend now places coins upon his eyes, saying "Good Night, Sweet Prince"
  • Ginger Snaps 2: Unleashed: When Brigitte and Ghost come across Beth-Ann's still-cooling corpse in the immediate aftermath of a Werewolf attack, Ghost puts a couple coins on the body to "pay the Ferryman". Played with in that it is as much a display of Ghost's Troubling Unchildlike Behavior as it is a form of Due to the Dead, since burying bodies with coins has long since become obsolete as a funeral custom by the present day (when the movie is set).
  • Troy: One scene has coins placed over a dead warrior's eyes before his funeral.
  • Nacho Libre opens with Brother Ignacio administering last rites to a man thought to have already died, then placing two coins over his eyes and covering him with a sheet. The man then wakes up and removes the sheet and turns his head to glare at Ignacio, causing the coins to fall to the floor.

  • In American Gods Shadow receives a coin from an odd man who is actually a leprechaun. He places it in the grave of his deceased wife. Panicking, the leprechaun returns later because the coin he had given away was extremely important, but on hearing that it had already been given away he sadly resigns himself to his fate. As for the coin itself, it brings back Shadow's wife... as a zombie. Intelligent, but still very dead and slowly decaying.
  • In Mort, Death's apprentice wonders why his boss is not short of money to use as petty cash — then realises the coins come from all eras and they always come in matching pairs...
  • Nero Wolfe: In The Black Mountain, the plot starts off with the death of one of Wolfe's old friends. Wolfe goes to the morgue to identify the body, then asks the coroner for permission to place two old coins on his friend's eyes (something he'd promised to do years ago).
  • Percy Jackson and the Olympians: Charon expects the dead that he ferries over to have a method of paying him:
    Charon: I don't suppose you have coins for passage. Normally, with adults, you see, I could charge your American Express, or add the ferry price to your last cable bill. But with children... alas, you never die prepared. Suppose you'll have to take a seat for a few centuries.
  • In 'Salem's Lot, a man is digging a grave for a recently deceased child and getting increasingly uncomfortable. As he gets to the end and the sun is setting, he eventually begins digging down in a frenzy to give the dead boy some silver coins, but whether or not it would have worked, it is too late: the boy has risen as a vampire.
  • Shadows in Bronze opens with Marcus Didius Falco stuck with the unpleasant job of discreetly disposing of the corpse of someone who was killed in the previous novel. After dumping the corpse in a sewer he throws in a coin as well.
  • Ravirn: In WebMage, when one of Ravirn's companions dies helping him, he puts coins over the dead man's eyelids and "another into his mouth as fee for the ferryman", fitting the Greek Mythology inspiration of the novels.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Caprica: Since the Twelve Colonies' mainstream religion is based on Greek Mythology it's no surprise that Tauran funeral customs include a toll for the river Styx. If there's no body to bury (such as from a train bomb) the coins are presented to a priest.
  • Game of Thrones evokes the spirit of this by placing stones colored like eyes over the eyes of important people as their bodies are prepared for a funeral and burial.
  • In the season 11 episode "Baby" of Supernatural, the way to defeat the Monster of the Week is to place a coin in his mouth. This reminds the undead creature that he is in fact dead and sends him back to his resting state.
  • Subverted in CSI, where a hitman places a coin on top of the bullet hole in the victim's head. When asked, Warrick explains that it means "Call someone who cares."

  • The Beatles refer to this practice in their Protest Song "Taxman", satirizing what they saw as the draconian tax laws of Great Britain. The last verse implied that the tax collector wouldn't shy away from getting his hands on the dead man's coins.
    "And my advice for those who die,
    Declare the pennies on your eyes."
  • Done for the patriarch of the family who dies and is mourned by the surviving family in the video for Billy Joel's "We Didn't Start The Fire".
  • Chris de Burgh warns that you Don't Pay The Ferryman (implied to be Charon, who takes you across the river to the Underworld) until he gets you to the other side, no matter how much he insists otherwise. So clearly not just having the coin matters, but also making sure you're not stiffed by whoever is conveying you.

    Myths & Religion 
  • Classical Mythology:
    • Greek dead were traditionally buried with coins in their mouths so Charon would ferry them over the Styx, otherwise leaving them unable to move on. Orpheus paid for his passage with a song instead.
    • When Psyche had to run an errand in the Underworld for Aphrodite, she took two coins under her tongue -one for the trip there, one for the trip back. She also took two honeycakes for Cerberus.

  • Hadestown: The "ticket" Hades gives Eurydice so she can go belowground are two coins that she places over her eyes. This also references Charon's obol — the coins placed on corpses to pay Charon, the ferryman who transports souls to the land of the dead.

    Video Games 
  • In Assassin's Creed Origins, at the end of Pothinus' death scene he takes a coin from his own fallen corpse as his fee across the River Styx.
  • Skelly from Hades has an obol in his mouth, as befits a dead person in the Greek underworld.
  • Fallout 4: computer logs in various police departments around the Commonwealth hold information on the "Nuka-Killer", a pre-War serial killer who would place Nuka-Cola bottlecaps in the eye sockets of their victims, presumably as a twisted reference to this trope. In the post-War world, with the adoptions of caps as currency, it takes on a new dimension.
  • In King's Quest VI: Heir Today, Gone Tomorrow, part of the very laborious, complex and difficult process for Alexander to safely make his way into the land of the dead and restore the princess' murdered parents involves finding a pair of coins on the eyes of a skeleton inside the labyrinth of the minotaur, and paying them to Charon in order to cross the river Styx. Unusually, Charon requires that Alexander place the coins under his own tongue in order to pass.
  • At the beginning of Red Dead Redemption 2, Davey Callender dies from his injures sustained in the Blackwater Massacre after the Van der Linde gang has reached Colter, and they have to put two coins on his eyes as an assurance that the dead have to pay the ferryman before they can move onto the afterlife.
  • In Tales of Monkey Island, Guybrush needs to bequeath "the golden eyes of everlasting sleep", the two coins he was buried with, in order for The Ferryman to take him to the Crossroads, the pirate afterlife.
  • Touhou Project: In keeping with her job as The Ferryman, Komachi Onozuka wears a Chinese-style coin tied around her waist, and often throws them as projectiles.
  • In ULTRAKILL, you can skip the Ferryman's boss fight by tossing him a coin. After a few seconds, he will open the door leading to the next level, which takes place inside his ship.

  • In Slightly Damned Medians are buried with a coin that is used to pay Death for their passage across the river Styx. If they don't have one, or refuse to give it up like one greedy banker, they have to swim, which can take years. It's customary for the jakkai to place a coin in the ear of a dead loved one. After Sakido dies, Rhea puts a coin—specifically, the coin placed in her ear when she died, which she still had—in her ear even though demons don't get an afterlife.
  • In Yet Another Fantasy Gamer Comic, Baron Greyfort arranges to be buried with three coins instead of two. He argues with a goddess that since the funeral rites have not been properly observed, he cannot enter the afterlife, so that he can continue to watch over his family as a ghost.

    Web Videos 

    Real Life 
  • This has been at times a fairly common burial rite. The Greeks, as mentioned under Myths and Religion, would often place an obol in the deceased's mouth.
  • In the 19th century it was fairly common in Ireland and Scotland, and some parts of continental Europe, to place coins on the eyes of the deceased during the funeral. But this was largely to hold their eyes closed.
  • Around the Turn of the Millennium, a burial of a premature baby was found in a medieval cemetery. The baby had a copper coin in its hand... and the hand (but not the rest of the baby) had been mummified! The copper that leached out of the coin kept the microbes responsible for decomposition from growing on the baby's hand, causing it to mummify instead.
  • You might see coins on headstones on military cemeteries. A penny means someone visited and paid their respect. A nickel means the visitor trained together with the deceased. A dime means the visitor served together. A quarter means the visitor was there when the deceased was killed.


Video Example(s):


The Wolf

As Puss and company gets away with the map to the Wishing Star, the Wolf shows up again, watching on. He then picks up some coins from the ground and places them over his eyes before performing this gesture. A nonverbal declaration that he's not going to stop hunting Puss until he's dead.

How well does it match the trope?

5 (24 votes)

Example of:

Main / EyeAmWatchingYou

Media sources: