When mementos such as, coins, pebbles, teddy bears, and whiskey bottles are left on a grave, they are referred to as “grave goods.”
Since ancient times, the imagery of the boat to ferry a soul from one realm to the other has been a part of the symbolism of death. In Greek mythology, the River Styx wrapped its way around Hades (the Underworld) nine times. To cross from this life to the next, the dead had to pay with a coin to be ferried from the realm of the living to the realm of the dead. The toll was placed in the mouth of the deceased to pay Charon, the ferryman. It was said that if the dead person did not have the coin, he was destined to wander the shores of the River Styx for a century. The “boat” was one of the images found on Victorian graves to represent the crossing from one world to the next. Leaving a coin on a gravestone, then, becomes a way to pay the ferryman and saving the spirit of the dead from the fate of wandering in the depths for a hundred years.
Grave goods have a long history which has its antecedents in Biblical times. According to Genesis 35:20, (King James Version), the tradition started with Jacob— “And Jacob set a pillar upon her grave: that is the pillar of Rachel’s grave unto this day.” For Christians and Jews leaving a pebble on top of a gravestone honor’s a loved one—building a pillar as Jacob did for Rachel. Some Jewish cemeteries even have containers that hold stones so families visiting graves can choose a pebble to place on a family member’s gravestone.
Along with pebbles and coins many other kinds of items are left at graves—toy cars and teddy bears on children’s graves, buckets of chicken at Colonel Sander’s grave, and sometimes, as in the case of Hoagy Carmichael, the great Tin Pan Alley composer, an empty bottle of booze—perhaps a nod to the lifestyle of many musicians and performers.