Several years ago, on a busy summer day, a customer stepped up to the counter at Village Craftsmen with an unusual question. “Can you tell me the significance of the coins on the tombstones across the lane?” the customer asked.

As most of our readers are aware, Village Craftsmen is located on historic Howard Street, a one-lane, unpaved road on Ocracoke Island. A number of family cemeteries lie beside the lane, and some of the graves date to the early 1800s. Visitors to the island often walk through the cemeteries to read the epitaphs in order to glean a bit of island history.

I had no idea what he was referring to. “What coins?” I said.

The customer proceeded to explain that some of the tombstones had pennies, nickels, dimes and/or quarters placed on them.  I walked across Howard Street to investigate. My parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, and great-great grandparents, as well as other more distant relatives, are buried there, but it had been several weeks since I had visited the cemeteries. Sure enough, several markers had a few coins resting on them. I told the customer that I didn’t know the answer to his question, but I assured him that placing coins on tombstones was not a traditional local custom.

Solomon Howard (1807-1853)
Solomon Howard (1807-1853)

Over the next several years I noticed more and more coins laid on local tombstones and monuments. One visit to the British Cemetery revealed many dollars-worth of coins (and even a few one- and five-dollar bills) placed on the markers. A neighbor and I gathered the money in a basket (it totaled more than $200) and passed it on to a representative of the annual British Cemetery Memorial committee.

For millennia, humans have decorated graves with flowers, shells, stones, feathers, candles, and other items. In some cultures, coins, bowls of food, bottles of alcohol, cigarettes and other gifts are placed on graves, or even inside caskets as ways to honor the dead, to bring good luck to the deceased, or to ease the departed into the afterlife.

The modern practice of leaving coins on tombstones apparently has its origin with the military. According to posts shared on social media, different coins convey different messages.

  • Penny – A penny left at a gravesite means you visited there. It is simply a way to honor a departed service member.
  • Nickel – A nickel indicates you trained with the deceased.
  • Dime – A dime left on a tombstone means you served with the deceased person in his or her unit, company, ship, etc.
  • Quarter – A quarter indicates you were with the deceased when he or she died.

There is speculation that the ritual of placing coins on gravestones dates back to Benjamin Franklin (d. 1790) who famously said, “a penny saved, is a penny earned.” According to the Christ Church Preservation Trust in Philadelphia, tens of thousands of coins are thrown onto Benjamin Franklin’s marker each year. The practice has been blamed for causing a significant crack on his marble ledger tablet.

Of course, there is no official protocol for leaving coins on tombstones, and the practice has clearly extended beyond honoring just military members. In recent years family members in some locations have begun honoring their loved ones by placing coins on graves. For many years Ocracoke islanders have decorated graves with flowers and shells, but, as mentioned, placing coins on tombstones is not a time-honored Ocracoke Island tradition.  As this custom grows, surely different people will have different understandings of the symbolism.

Most of the people buried on Howard Street did not serve in the military. Even those who did (including members of the US Life Saving Service and US Coast Guard) may not have military markers. And most, if not all, of the coins seem to have been left by island visitors, not by local family members. Perhaps visitors to Ocracoke simply wish to honor the many generations of sturdy islanders who have lived on this beautiful barrier island and endured storms, hurricanes, shipwrecks, and isolation from the mainland.

Edgar Howard (1904-1990)
Edgar Howard (1904-1990)

As mentioned, the coins left at the British Cemetery are periodically collected and used to fund the annual memorial ceremony. Coins on Howard Street family cemeteries are used to help clean and maintain the graves.


Ocracoke village comprises little more than 600 acres of buildable land, with about 750 residents.  In spite of the small & circumscribed land mass, and the tiny population, Ocracoke is home to more than eighty cemeteries.

With only one exception, the cemeteries are small and mostly serve individual families.  Scattered throughout the village, most are located near historic home sites, and are generally enclosed by simple wooden fences.  Many are clearly visible from the village roads.  One of the largest, the old Howard cemetery, contains about four dozen marked graves, and is not far from the British Cemetery, the final resting place of four sailors whose armed trawler was torpedoed off shore during World War II.

The oldest grave in the Howard cemetery is that of George Howard, grandson of William Howard, Sr., the island’s last colonial owner.  George Howard died in 1806, and virtually everyone buried there is a descendant of his.  The most recent grave is that of Myra Wahab, who died almost two hundred years later, in 2003.

Between the British cemetery and the Howard cemetery lies the Williams cemetery, surrounded by a waist-high brick wall. Captain David Williams, the first keeper of the Ocracoke village Coast Guard Station, is buried there, in the front row.

Between the Williams cemetery and the paved road, under a thicket of yaupon bushes and myrtles, and shaded by the overhanging limbs of an ancient live oak tree, lie the remains of Augustus Abner McQuire, an Irish sailor who died off shore in 1913.  For almost a hundred years islanders have been wary of walking by his grave after dark for fear of encountering the ghost of the “Old Diver.”  You can read his story here.

On the other side of the Howard cemetery is the tiny Gaskins-Williams cemetery with fewer than a half dozen graves.  At least seven other graveyards are located along the same road.

Unpaved Howard Street, between NC Highway 12 and the School Road, is well known for the many family graveyards that line the lane.  This is where William Howard, Sr.’s other grandson, William Howard, III, lived and raised his family.  At least five generations of Howards are buried there, along with Ballances, Braggs, Garrishes, and others, most of whom had intermarried with the Howards.

The oldest grave on Howard Street may be that of William Howard, III, who died about 1823.  Although his wooden marker has long since rotted away, the family still knows where he and his wife are buried, near a large live oak in the center of the cemetery.

One noteworthy grave on Howard Street is that of Edgar Howard.  Edgar was an accomplished banjo player who made a name for himself in New York City and other metropolises in the 1920s & 1930s.  He and his brother, Walter, played the vaudeville circuit with stars such as Gene Autry, Milton Berle, and Al Jolson.  In retirement, Edgar returned home to Ocracoke, and entertained his neighbors with stories and songs.  His tombstone has a banjo engraved on it, along with the words, “You ain’t heard nothing yet!”

Unfortunately, many of the oldest graves on the island have become overgrown with briars and underbrush, and the wooden markers destroyed by weather and insects.  Others near the water have washed away as wind and waves have reshaped the island shoreline during hurricanes and storms.

Not all of the island cemeteries are visible from the road.  Many are tucked away on wooded hummocks, or are hidden in back yards.  If you wander the out-of-the-way paths and sandy lanes of Ocracoke, or visit neighbors in the historic village, you are bound to stumble across graveyards now and then.   They can be a rich source of island history and genealogy.

Sometimes graves are arranged in clusters.  Sometimes a single marker pokes out from the bushes.  Occasionally you will encounter a hand-made marker with names and dates crudely traced out when the concrete was wet. Most have fences and gates.  Some stand forlorn and alone.  If other family members are buried nearby their markers are gone.

Before the mid-1950s, when the state of North Carolina took over ferry operations across Hatteras Inlet, Ocracoke islanders were accustomed to handling death and dying as a community, without professional assistance.

When a member of the community died family members and friends came to help.  In addition to offering comfort to the bereaved family, neighbors pitched in to make funeral preparations.  One of the local carpenters was called to build a coffin.  Islanders often kept pre-cut casket boards stored under their house, or above the rafters in an out building.

Local women would line the casket with silk or satin.  Neighborhood men took shovels and opened a grave.  The body was washed & cleaned, and dressed for viewing.  Silver dollars were sometimes placed over the deceased’s eyes.  Family and friends would sit up all night with the body, a custom that sometimes led to tall tales of haunting spirits and ghosts.  The funeral was generally held the next day in the Methodist Church.  Interment was immediately following, usually in a pre-existing cemetery on family land.

Over the years a number of bodies have been disinterred.  For one reason or another, family members have sometimes thought it best to move bodies from one location to a different one. In years past this was always a family decision.  Isolated as Ocracoke was, no one thought it necessary to contact authorities.  The men would simply take shovels to the graveyard and dig up the casket (or just the bones if the grave was old), and move the remains elsewhere.

It wasn’t always residents who were buried on the island.  Old Diver and the four British sailors are only a few of the many seafarers who met their end on or near Ocracoke.  Over the course of several centuries numerous wrecked ships have deposited their dead upon our beaches. Most were buried in the dunes in unmarked graves near the site of the wreck.  Seldom were they buried in wooden boxes.  In the aftermath of a disaster at sea most of the dead and drowned were wrapped in sailcloth, blankets, or quilts and laid to rest on higher ground with a minimum of ceremony.

In the mid-1940s Amasa Fulcher began selling professionally built caskets from the Community Store.  He kept two adult, and one child, casket in stock at all times.  No longer was it necessary to keep casket boards at home.  At least one set of boards originally intended as a coffin was made into a dining room table.

Another innovation, begun in 1938, was the establishment of the Ocracoke Burial Association.  For a twenty-five cent membership fee, annual dues of ten cents, and a contribution of twenty-five cents at the death of any member, anyone who had been a resident of the island for at least ninety days could ensure that his or her family would receive a small amount of money at the time of death.  There are over four hundred members of the Association today, and contributions at a member’s death have been raised to fifty cents.  Although two hundred dollars (more or less) is little more than a token nowadays, most islanders participate in the Burial Association because it helps keep that old-timely sense of community alive.

By the late 1950s and early 1960s almost everyone on the island began using the services of Twiford’s Funeral Home, based in Elizabeth City, NC.  With the newly initiated ferry service across Hatteras Inlet, and a paved road the length of the island, it was now possible for Twiford’s to bring their hearse to Ocracoke.  Bodies were taken off the island for embalming, and were brought back home for the funeral and burial.

Eventually Twiford’s established a funeral home on Hatteras Island.    Ocracoke has no funeral home.  Many burials are still made in family plots, however.  But island residents, realizing that small graveyards were nearing capacity, established a large community cemetery in the early 1960s.

In the late 1990s an effort was made to revive Ocracoke’s traditional, community oriented funeral and burial practices.  Simple homemade pine caskets were built, and several islanders were laid to rest without benefit of embalming or other professional services.  Because of a number of practical considerations, including the desire of off-island relatives and friends to attend services (which made immediate interment impossible) and the number of people & amount of work required to effect a “simple” island burial in the late twentieth century, the practice was quietly discontinued.

Today almost all deaths on Ocracoke are handled by Twiford’s, with the help of local associates, who serve islanders with dignity and professionalism.

Someone noted not long ago that on any given day on Ocracoke Island there may well be more dead people here than live ones.  In addition to the thousands of people laid to rest in our eighty cemeteries, no one knows how many Indians, pirates, slaves, sailors, and others are buried in unmarked graves the length of the island.

Perhaps you should walk warily down our dark and deserted streets after dark!  Who knows when you might come face to face with an island ghost from years ago.


© Philip Howard, 2003

Walking through island graveyards can lead to unexpected discoveries. For instance, a quiet stroll through the old Howard cemetery on British Cemetery Road in February of 2003 led to more information than I thought I’d ever want to know about the Canadian Tamarack tree, and just enough to whet my appetite about a fascinating island woman now long dead.

Ocracoke residents of years gone by were familiar with the Tamarack tree. Also known as the Eastern Larch, many English speakers called it the Hackmatack tree. This unusual name derives from the Algonquin word “akemantak” which means “wood used for snowshoes.”

Parts of this softwood tree, found primarily in cold, wet, poorly-drained sites in Canada were used by Native Americans for medicines, canoe paddles, snowshoes, and drums. The bark was used to tan hides, smoke fish, and build signal fires. When burning, hackmatack wood produces quite a lot of smoke. It is also prone to popping loudly and throwing out a prodigious number of bright, colorful sparks.

Because the root of the Hackmatack tree grows at a right angle to the trunk, this section of the tree has great strength. Called “tension wood” it is widely used to make “knees” which have a long history of use by builders of wooden ships, to join ribs to deck timbers.

And so it is likely that nineteenth century islanders learned of the Hackmatack wood while building boats, and later, as they salvaged firewood from schooners that wrecked on Ocracoke’s beach.  Outer Bankers also used lumber from wrecked vessels in the homes they built for themselves on the islands.

Hackmatack Knee from the Homer & Aliph Howard Home:

Haackmatack knee

I knew virtually nothing about the Hackmatack tree when I spotted the tomb of Jordan Dailey in the second row of markers in the Howard Cemetery. Jordan Dailey, who was born in 1806 and died on the last day of 1843, is one of only a handful from that family who have called Ocracoke home.

Jordan Dailey, 1806 – 1843:

Jordan Dailey grave

“How did a single Dailey come to be buried in the Howard graveyard?” I wondered. Who exactly was he, and what was his story? Well, that’s something of a puzzle, I discovered.

I learned that Jordan Dailey was a merchant from Swan Quarter who married into the Howard family of Ocracoke around 1840. His wife, Ann Heggart, was the great-great-granddaughter of William Howard, Sr., colonial owner of Ocracoke Island.

There is more to the story than that, however. Years ago the North Carolina government kept records of children born out of wedlock, presumably to aid in inheritance squabbles. A woman named Sarah (Sally) Ballance was listed in these records as mother of a young son born in April or May of 1833. She identified the father as Jordan Dailey.

Sometime after her son was born, and before 1840, Sarah Balance appears to have married a Stanford Jackson. She came to be called “Aunt” even by neighbors and friends. Her nickname was Sally, and as was the custom on the island, she was often referred to by her husband’s name. Hence, “Aunt Sal Stanford.”

By all accounts she was a feisty, independent, no-nonsense, irreverent woman known to speak her mind and take no guff from anyone. She was also flamboyant, being fond of bangles, earrings, and other flashy jewelry.

Existing records indicate that Stanford Jackson had previously married a Sarah Easter on the first day of the new year, 1829. Presumably she died at a young age and Stanford Jackson remarried, this time to Sally Balance. Stanford Jackson is last listed in census records in 1840, so we may assume that he died before 1850.

1850 Census records further indicate that, at 40 years old, Aunt Sal Stanford was head of household, putting her birth date about 1810. That same census lists a 17 year old boy named Thomas living with her. Thomas would have been born in 1833, the same year the Dailey child was born..

Twenty years later a Thomas Dailey, age 38, is listed in the census records as head of household with his wife and four children. Sally Jackson, age 62, is also living with him.

No doubt the Thomas of 1850 was one and the same person as Thomas Dailey of 1870, and Aunt Sal Stanford (Sally Balance) was his mother.

I suspect that, at the very least, Aunt Sal Stanford was never one to hold to convention, or to care much how other folks judged her. I like to think of her as one of Ocracoke’s early independent thinkers – strong-willed, self-assured, and confident, not unlike many island women of today. How I would like to have known her!

Thus it is no surprise to learn that Aunt Sal Stanford always claimed she wanted to be buried in a Hackmatack box so, as she was fond of explaining, she “would be able to go to Hell a-poppin’ and a-snappin’!”

Unfortunately, we don’t know exactly where Aunt Sal Stanford is buried. A number of Jackson graves were washed away due to sound-side erosion. Exposed remains were re-buried in unmarked graves.

One can only hope that if there is a Creator, He or She values spunk and verve, and above all else has a sense of humor. I, for one, prefer imagining Paradise populated with people like Aunt Sal Stanford, no matter where she herself expected to spend eternity.