I am a licensed tourist guide in Washington, D.C., and as such I belong to a few informational listservs. Recently, an inquiry came over one of them asking about the reason for stacking coins on headstones at Arlington National Cemetery. I happened to be in the Visitor Center there when the request came and so I asked at the information desk. I was told that it is the same as the custom of stacking stones – to pay one’s respect and to indicate that one had been there. Since then, there has been some discussion on the listserv about this topic. It seems to be unfamiliar territory.
Since I’ve walked the Camino de Santiago various times, I am quite accustomed to seeing stacked stones. They are everywhere on the Camino; on stone walls, on cruceiros, on bollards, but mostly on the ground. In some places along the Way, there are hundreds or even thousands of little (and not so little) piles of stones.
As it turns out, there are various reasons why people stack stones. It is done all over the world. Hikers often use cairns, as the rock stacks are called, to mark trails in places where the path is unclear. They indicate that the trail is nearby and may or may not be directional. Sometimes the stack will include a “pointy” stone that indicates the direction of the path. But that is not always the case. Some people use them as a type of “memorial” or to indicate that, yes, they have been there. One of the most common reasons, however, is to create a Sacred Space. It is a simple way to pay homage to the grandeur of the Universe without the need for tools. In moments, anyone can create his own personal little cathedral.
Culturally, many people associate rock stacking with the Jewish people. In the Bible, Moses “created an altar of stones”. Stones or pebbles on graves were meant to “keep the soul in place”. Based on the tradition that souls remain for a while in the graves in which they are placed, the stones help to keep them there, keep them from wandering, if you will. While many people place flowers on graves, the Jewish people considered this to be a pagan tradition and it was therefore discouraged. Stones offer a sense of permanence, representing the enduring memory of the deceased loved one.
Buddhist monks stacked stones in monasteries for contemplation. A newer Buddhist tradition however, is to stack stones at a temple as a form of worship or more likely a gesture to ask or wish for good fortune to be bestowed on the family. Each stone represents a member of the family or a particular wish.
The Inuit people have been building inuksuk for thousands of years – rock towers designed to celebrate “I am here”. They too, can be used to mark trails, to be a reference point, to indicate a message or to communicate with Spirits.
The spiritual meaning of stacked stones appears to be a constant for nearly everyone. This would clearly explain the proliferation of cairns along the various routes to Santiago de Compostela. I’ve often added to an existing one, or built a small one of my own. Or sometimes I’ve just contemplated the thousands of people who have walked the Way before me and placed all these rocks, one atop the other, leaving their mark for those who follow.
So back to Arlington National Cemetery – why do you suppose people stack coins? I’m guessing that it is in lieu of stones. There aren’t many stones readily available in Arlington, so perhaps people who are so moved take a coin from their pocket and place it on a headstone. But why on earth are people suddenly leaving nickles at the site of Robert F. Kennedy’s grave?
“A rock pile ceases to be a rock pile the moment a single man contemplates it,
bearing within him the image of a cathedral.”
-Antoine de Saint-Exupery