Scattering Violets

An exploration of funerary traditions and innovations, care of the dead, and pagan perspectives on death

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Coins for the Dead

I’ve begun training as a cremationist, and while it can feel overwhelming at times when faced with all the things I have to learn, I really enjoy it. I like how hands-on it is, and how the steps in the process utilize different skills and actions. Cremation is a deeply spiritual act to me. I physically care for the dead and participate in their transformation, assisting the Fire in releasing their spirits from their physical forms.


Fire is a psychopomp; it transforms and delivers. We burn our offerings in order to send them to the Otherworld; when the dead are cremated, they, too, are sent swiftly by fire to the Otherworld. I have a close relationship with Fire. Hearth cult was my first regular devotional act as a polytheist, and I’ve written several devotional poems about my interactions with fire as a primordial spirit. It is a savior, guide, and conveyor of wisdom through divination.


Cremationists use thin silver discs with numbers on them called cremation tags to identify  and track cremated remains throughout the cremation process. After a body is laid on the cremator hearth and the door is lowered, one of these tags is placed on a little hook on the front of the machine, and the tag follows the remains when they are swept from the cremator, processed, and finally placed with the remains inside an urn. As I hung the stainless steel cremation tag on the hook for the first pet I cremated, it struck me as similar to placing a coin on the body of the dead as they begin their journey to the Otherworld.


This act of giving coins to the dead – inside their mouths, over their eyes, on their palms, or in little pouches nearby – is an ancient and widespread part of funerary rituals, practiced by many peoples of various religions across time. Hellenistic Greeks, Romans, ancient peoples in the areas now known as Persia and Iran, Jews, Christians, and European polytheists have all done it. Coins have been placed within urns, as we do with our cremation tags, as well as in graves. While some of the coins had higher monetary value, many of them were lower-value, even when interred beside riches belonging to the dead. The point does not seem to be to bestow wealth onto the dead; rather, it seems to be fare for a journey.


Among the Hellenistic Greeks, Charon was the recipient of these coins. He is the ferryman of the dead, a psychopomp who bears them across the river to the Underworld of Hades and Persephone. Rivers are often liminal places in mythology and folklore; we see this in Greek myth as well as the Danish fairytale “Esben and the Witch” and Norse ship burials. In order to make the journey, Charon would need to be paid. It is an offering and a rite of passage into the realm of the dead. This coin was often an obol, a Greek coin worth about $10 USD today, and it was most often placed on or within the mouth of the dead. If bodies were left unburied or without coins, it’s said that their souls would not be allowed to cross the river for 100 years, leaving them restless (potentially to haunt the living).


Viking Age bracteates in Scandinavian and Germanic burials seem to have a similar function. These single-sided, ornate gold disks were sometimes made into women’s necklaces but also could be contained in pouches beside the dead and were not used as everyday coinage. Because they were not used in everyday life, their presence in graves seems to have a purely sacred purpose – for the use of the dead in the Underworld. Such is the case also with Sicilian “ghost” coins. These “coins” were thin gold leafs stamped with impressions of actual coins or an icon to resemble coinage, and they too were placed with the dead in their graves. This is similar in concept to joss papers, the paper money burned for the dead during Asian ancestor celebrations and at traditional funerals. Joss paper is not mundane currency but exclusively for the dead in the afterlife. By burning it, the paper money is translated and delivered to the dead, who may use it to purchase sustenance and comforts in the Underworld. I have a similar belief about the power of fire as a conveyor and translator, which is why I burn offerings when I can (or else dispense them in water, if they won’t become a pollutant). Clearly, the general consensus is that payment for the dead need not be of high value to the living – death is a magical, transformative event, and that which has little value to the living may be of high value to the dead and other chthonic spirits.


In many Western polytheist religions, the Underworld – both the physical “world” beneath the surface of the earth and its spiritual plane – was not only the place for the dead but also the source of fertility and wealth. It is the place where simple seeds become fertile and shoot upward into the sunlight, producing foods and materials that sustain the living. It is also where precious metals and gems are sourced. The dead have their roles in generating these, which is one reason why so many peoples honor ancestors and chthonic spirits. Their blessings give us life, and so even after death, we remain connected to and depend on them.


In a sense, when I place the cremation tag on the cremator, I am “paying” the fire as others have paid Charon; I am saying in effect, “This is one of your passengers. Their name is linked with the number on this coin, and it gives them permission to travel with you. Please deliver them safely to their next existence.” In so doing, I serve as a steward of the dead.

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The Cunning Wife is an animist, writer, diviner, crafter, witch, and spirit worker and traveler. Her work has been published in a number of online and print magazines, including Witches & Pagans and Hagstone Publishing's Stone, Root, and Bone ezine. She gets excited about scholarly essays and books on folklore, magical tales, and ancient spiritual practices, and is passionate about sharing that information. She is also an avid crafter of magical and mundane items. She believes that there is magic in the mundane, just waiting to be remembered.  


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