Last year I published a short account of Ocracoke Island burials gleaned from the notes of Rev. William Crow who served as the Methodist minister in 1936-1938. Rev. Crow was fresh out of seminary when he was sent to Ocracoke. Following is more of his story (slightly edited) that illustrates Ocracoke islanders’ straightforward manner, as told to his son, David Crow, in 1998.

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I got to Morehead City and took the bus going to Atlantic…. The gear shift stick was held in place by a forked stick propped against the dashboard. And when we had to stop to pick up a passenger, the driver just took that stick out, and then when we started up again, he pulled the thing back in place and propped it there with his forked stick.

And after I left Morehead City I thought I had left the end of the world…but when I got to Atlantic I knew I had arrived. There was a mailboat at dock there, taking on passengers and some groceries and various things that people on Portsmouth Island and Ocracoke had ordered, and found myself on the deck of that mailboat.* It was a beautiful ride over there. We were up on that top deck, and it was flat and there was a railing around and a bench on either side where we could sit and look at each other and watch the seagulls.

In due time, three hours later, approximately, our boat docked in front of a store there [Willis’s store, now the Working Watermen’s Exhibit]…

Mailboat
Mailboat

I got off of the boat with my suitcase, and a man met me, and I said, “Are you Tommy Howard [1878-1972, grandfather of Betty Helen Howard Chanberlin, owner of Captain’s Landing Motel]?” He said, “No, my name is Homer Howard [1868-1947, grandfather of Philip Howard, owner of Village Craftsmen].”…

Mr. Homer Howard…took my suitcase and let me walk along by his side down to the post office [approximately where Captain’s Landing Motel is today].

Old Post Office
Old Post Office

You can imagine that the post office was a favorite gathering place for the arrival of the mail bag. The people would stand around there until Mr. Tommy Howard [the post master] had sorted out that mail, and then the people could find out whether or not they had heard from anybody. But when we got there to the post office, Mr. Homer introduced me to a lady that was sitting on a stump there, had a stocking on her head, and said, “Mamie, I want you to meet our new preacher,” and when she had attended to the matter of the snuff that was in her mouth, she said, “Howdy.” [The widow, “Aunt Mame” Gaskins Harris, 1876-1957, took in boarders and cooked at the Pamlico Inn.]

Then Mr. Homer took me on down to the parsonage.

Old Parsonage on Howard Street
Old Parsonage on Howard Street

I don’t suppose it was over a hundred yards down there…where four wonderful ladies had prepared my supper. They didn’t call it a dinner; they called it supper. There was a table neatly decorated with a tablecloth on it, one plate, cup and saucer, knife, fork and spoon, and on that table were some hot biscuits and some fish….

I went down to the church to preach my first sermon in my first church to a little congregation on Ocracoke Island.

Methodist Episcopal Church, South
Methodist Episcopal Church, South

Now I did try to look like very nonchalant as if I had been preaching all my life. And so I casually held on to the sides of the pulpit and talked to those good people and preached what was supposed to be a sermon.

And after it was over, I didn’t know enough about preaching at that time to know that you were supposed to go out and stand at the front door and let people come out while you would shake hands with them. So I just stood up in front and anybody that wanted to come up there came up, and several people came up and said nice things. But Mr. Tommy Howard, who I thought might meet me at the door didn’t come up there. He stood in the aisle about half way down, and he waited until I got to him, and this is what he said: He said, “Preacher, it looked to me like you thought the pulpit was going to get away from you this morning.” That was one of the best homiletic lessons I ever learned…. I never did hold on to a pulpit while I was preaching in all the years of my ministry after that.

Then there was another wonderful lesson in homiletics I got about a week or so later from Miss Bessie. Now Miss Bessie was Tommy Howard’s wife, and she invited me to their home for dinner after a Sunday morning service. And so we were sitting there in the living room and Miss Bessie was putting food on the table. It was a good dinner…some wonderful fresh fish and some hot biscuits….

She didn’t call us to dinner right away; she just came in and sat down where we were, and this is what she said to me: “Mr. Crow, we would like your preaching a lot better if you would stop making faces in the pulpit.” I said: “Miss Bessie, do I make faces in the pulpit?” “Yes, you do, and we would like it better if you would stop that.” So I said, “I’ll stop it.” What I had been doing was … screwing up one side of my face when I was supposed to be thinking. Now that was another good lesson in homiletics. Now it hurt me just a little bit to have Mr. Tommy tell me I ought to stop holding on to the pulpit, and it hurt me just a little to have [Miss Bessie] tell me in such a plain way to stop making faces in the pulpit, but I had enough sense to know that they were right, and so I never did make any more faces in the pulpit.

 

 

 

*Early motor powered mailboats that crossed Pamlico Sound from Beaufort, Morehead City or Atlantic included  the Meteor, the Hero, the Viola, the Lillian, the Kitty Watts, the Ripple, the Morehead aCity, and the Ocracoke. According to the late Ocracoke postmaster Elizabeth O’Neal Howard, as quoted in Alton Ballance’s book Ocracokers, “the first [powered] mailboat service was …runned by two men called Mr. Gus and Mr. Pinter…. They had two boats. One would leave Morehead City early in the morning and the other would leave from Ocracoke at the same time.” The mailboat Aleta began the Atlantic – Ocracoke route in 1938 with Captain Wilbur Nelson, and Elmo Fulcher as crew.

 

 

 

 

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Rev. Crow served the Ocracoke Methodist Church in 1936-1938. Below is one of his stories:

I had a lot of company when I lived on Ocracoke…. My friend Leo Provinsky, who was Catholic, came down once. He was in the Duke School of Medicine, and I was in the Divinity School….

When Sunday came around, I said, “Leo, you get on out of here. If you go to hear me preach, you are going to have to confess your sins to the priest.”

So Leo…went down to the lake side and somebody let him have a row boat. It had one-half of an oar in it and no anchor. So Leo knew how to paddle a boat and the tide was going out and the wind was going with the tide, and every time he put that paddle in the water he would go ten feet or more. It was so easy that he didn’t know that paddling a boat could be that easy. He got out in the Pamlico Sound and it got sorta far away from land out there, and I think he was a little bit concerned. But a man in his fishing boat came close by to see if there was anything wrong and said, “Do you need any help?’

And Leo was so embarrassed he just lay down in the back of the boat with his hands back of his head and said, “No thank you.” Now that was a mistake. So the friendly fisherman went on his way. Leo was soon to be in trouble….because his row boat was just about to go out Ocracoke Inlet into the Atlantic Ocean. But he had enough presence of mind to take that half an oar and use it as a rudder and guided that boat into the point [the South Point]….

In any case, Leo was about two hours late coming back, and he was coming in the wrong direction. I was getting ready to send the Coast Guard to go look for him, and here he comes in from the wrong direction. I said, “Leo, where in the world have you been?” And then he told me the story of his experience in a row boat with half an oar and no anchor. Leo stayed with me a little while and then got the mailboat and went on back to Durham to finish his medical school education.

 

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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.

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