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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 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.


Examples

Anime and 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. It turns out he was Dead All Along, having died some time ago with nobody to check up on him, 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...repaying the favour 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 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: Time of Your Life 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.

Film — Animated

Film — 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"
  • 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.

Literature

  • 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:
    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.

Live Action TV

  • 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."

Music

  • 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."

Myth

  • 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.

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.
  • 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.
  • 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: 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.

Webcomics

  • 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 in her ear.
  • 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 Original

Real Life

  • This has been at times a fairly common burial rite. However, unlike in popular culture where the coins are placed on the eyes, actual evidence for this is fairly rare. Instead, the coins were usually placed inside the mouth.
  • 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.

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