Pennies on dead people’s eyes

Yesterday, I tweeted a link to a report from Haaretz on the excavation of Napoleonic era graves on Nelson’s island in Aboukir bay off of Alexandria.

It’s a good read, but there was one thing that struck me as slightly strange.

The report mentioned that one of the bodies had been found with Maltese copper coins on its eyesockets. Puzzlingly, this was ascribed to neo-classicism.

Well, no.

Certainly, Greeks in the classic period would put a coin in the mouth of the deceased to pay the ferryman – a habit that came from the Greeks not having invented pockets, and so they often kept their loose change in their mouths, but what they didn’t do was put coins on the eyes of the dead.

In Ireland and the west of Scotland – basically the Gaelic speaking areas, it was the custom to lay the deceased out for a wake prior to burial. The deceased was either in a winding sheet, or dressed in clothes – coffins were expensive, and while one might have been hired to carry the dead person to the grave, people were not always buried in one.

Now it became the habit to put pennies on the eyes of the deceased to keep the eyes closed and to stop them springing open to muscular contraction – something that if it happened in the midst of a wake must have been deeply disturbing to all concerned.

The pennies on the eyes of the dead thing is not just a Celtic thing – apparently in Hungary, there was similar belief except that there was a superstition that silver coins should be used, otherwise one could see one’s own death foretold in the dead person’s eyes.

(Nowadays morticians often glue the eyelids shut with superglue prior to a viewing of the body.)

But if you research this slightly morbid topic on Google you realise that somewhere in the early twentieth century, penny to pay the ferryman has become conflated with the pennies to keep the eyes shut – perhaps as people increasingly no longer personally prepared the dead for burial…

About dgm

Former IT professional, previously a digital archiving and repository person, ex research psychologist, blogger, twitterer, and amateur classical medieval and nineteenth century historian ...
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