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What’s A Funeral Coin?

By Joshua McMorrow-Hernandez - October 28, 2021

In the numismatic otherworld of obscure curiosities and other offbeat novelties, there is a peculiarly ominous type of coin that raises the eyebrow of some collectors and lifts the spirits of those more bemused by the macabre. This would be none other than funeral coins, which have been issued to honor the passings of prominent persons. Typically, funeral coins have been minted to mark the death of a royal ruler, though other types of fallen sovereign leaders have had their likenesses resurrected on the surfaces of these most unusual coins, including Catholic archbishops and United States presidents. The obverse of such pieces is usually reserved for a portrait of the deceased, while the reverse might bear a coat of arms or inscriptions describing the life of the individual so honored.

This 6 Sterbethaler marks the 1679 death of John Frederick, Duke of Brunswick-Lüneburg with a striking image of a skeleton representing death as it breaks the fronds off a palm. Public domain image published via Wikimedia Commons and credited to the National Numismatic Collection, National Museum of American History.
Click image to enlarge.

Germany was among the first to produce coinage categorically regarded as funeral coins, with pieces honoring Albert the Bear upon his death in 1170 and Archbishop Wichman von Seeburg in 1192. Many other funeral coins came along later to memorialize the deaths of such luminaries as King Frederick I in 1713 and Frederick the Great in 1786. A young United States paid homage to the nation’s first president, George Washington, upon his death in 1799 with funeral coins – rather more correctly described as medals – that were issued as mementos for a mourning public. Some of the most popular of these pieces are the George Washington Funeral Urn medals struck for funeral processions in Boston that took place in February 1800.

Washington Pieces, (1800) Medal Washington Funeral, Silver Urn, GW-70, PCGS MS61. Courtesy of PCGS TrueView.
Click image to enlarge.

As seen with the George Washington funeral coins, of which there are several varieties, not all these pieces are numismatically considered coinage, for they weren’t always monetized as legal tender. However, they generally are all made of precious metals and, when monetized, often carry high face values. Such pieces are sometimes dubbed commemoratives, particularly when marketed by dealers who don’t want to scare away potential customers with morbid mental imagery. But all such pieces are nevertheless collectible and enjoy robust collector bases, especially among those who want something a little different for their collections. Many of these pieces are rare and thus worth hundreds and thousands of dollars apiece, so numismatists who dig these eccentric pieces usually expect to pay an arm and a leg – or perhaps a humerus and femur – to collect them.

Article provided by PCGS at
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