He'd steal the pennies off of a dead man's eyes!
by DUB MOWERY
Dec 22, 2013 | 1564 views | 0 0 comments | 12 12 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Before World War II the customs related to when someone dies were much different here in the United States than it is now days. To a great extent those customs continued through the 1940s. For one thing homemade coffins made out of pine wood were still quite common. In the past a person’s wishes about whether or not they would be embalmed when they die was their choice. Now days most if not all states require embalming of a body if the coffin is open for viewing at a funeral. Another custom of the past was to put coins on top of the eyelids for the purpose of keeping them closed during rigor mortis (which is the stiffing of the joints and muscles). I actually saw that done on more than one occasion during those years up to the beginning of my teenage years. The coins I saw placed on the eyelids of the deceased were quarters or heavier ones. This is probably seldom done now days in that morticians use an adhesive gel along the edge of the eyelids to keep them closed.

The expression: “He’d steal the pennies off a dead man’s eyes” meant anyone who would do that had no scruples. Ray Hamilton, one of the Bonnie and Clyde gang members of the beginning of the 1930s, said before going to the electric chair for murder: "Bonnie and Clyde? They loved to kill people, see blood run. That's how they got their kicks. They were dirty people. Her breath was awful and Clyde never took a bath. They smelled bad all the time. They'd steal the pennies off a dead man's eyes." Also one of the Texas Rangers who took part in the ambush and killing Bonnie and Clyde stated, "They were the worst killers in the Southwest. We weren't about to take any chances with those two. Others did and they died. A lot of folks can rest easy now...even Bonnie and Clyde."

In the past when people were more superstitious they believed if a dead person’s eyes were left open to look on them would see their own death mirrored there. It is also believed that some cultures would leave coins on the eyelids of the deceased so that they could take money to their family members in the spirit realm.

There is another explanation of why money was put on the eyes of the dead. Charon’s obol, a coin of ancient Greece, was either placed over the eyes of a deceased or in the mouth for the ferryman who, according to their superstition conveyed souls of the dead across the river that divided the world of the living from the dead.
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