Texas family finds ‘pennies from heaven’ at Cayman grave

Cal Rutherford watches as his wife, Verna, right, and her sister-in-law Ronda Wood place a conch shell with flowers at the grave site of Tommy Wood, in the Wood family plot on Monument Road. – Photo: Jewel Levy

Local folklore has it that pennies were left on and around a grave in remembrance of the deceased.

Every year Verna and Cal Rutherford from Port Arthur, Texas, visit Cayman to tidy up Mrs. Rutherford’s family’s cemetery plot on Monument Road. This year, the couple found more than 100 coins at the grave site.

“We are considering them ‘pennies from heaven,’” Mrs. Rutherford, nee Wood, said, adding that she wonders if there is some sort of Caymanian folklore, prank or superstition behind the scattered coins.

“My pocket is full and there is more,” said Mrs. Rutherford’s sister-in-law, Ronda Wood, brushing off the grave to clean it.

“Maybe they threw them over the graves so Tommy Wood will not play any pranks on them,” said Mr. Rutherford.

“My little brother was known all over the island, and he played pranks on everyone,” Mrs. Rutherford explained.

The family took the coins back home to Texas with them and plan to frame them.

Tommy Wood, Mrs. Rutherford’s brother, died last year of cancer and the family held a memorial for him on Cayman. He lived in Cayman, working in the water sports industry, for several years throughout his life, as did his brother Leonard. Verna, Tommy and Leonard are the children of Leonard Olney Wood and Verna Ethel Bodden Wood (daughter of Capt. Benny Bodden), who moved to the United States in the late 1940s, but the family returned on vacation here every year, Mrs. Rutherford said.

The family got permission from the Department of Environmental Health to have some of Tommy’s remains and a marker placed at the cemetery, where other Wood family members are also buried.

When she was in Cayman last week for the cleanup of the grave site, Mrs. Rutherford placed a conch shell filled with flowers at the bottom of Mr. Wood’s marker.

On her hands and knees pulling bush and weeds from around the marker in the graveyard, Mrs. Rutherford, along with her husband and sister-in-law, shared the history of the Wood family plot – forgetting about the pennies for the moment.

“My grandfather is buried over there,” she said, pointing to the middle of the cemetery.

Laurel Wood, a member of Mrs. Rutherford’s family who lives on island, said they have been burying members of the Wood family in the little cemetery plot since the 1800s. “This would make the little family plot one of Bodden Town’s oldest grave sites,” she said.

“Uncle Carlton, Aunt Merle, Uncle Tim, Janette and Evans my grandparents, are all buried here,” said Mrs. Rutherford, gently placing a bouquet of flowers by a head marker. She said the property next door was owned by her grandparents and when they passed away, it was handed down to other family members.

During her stay in Cayman, Mrs. Rutherford also found time to enjoy some of Cayman’s local food. Captain Benny’s home was where the fish shack restaurant now stands in Bodden Town. She said they were all delighted to gather there with friends and family to enjoy dinner.

Local lore 

It is said by some locals that pennies are left on graves, most of all, in remembrance of the deceased. Some ancient superstitions say that if you drop a coin and make a wish, the dead person can help you. Some residents said it would keep away the “duppies” (ghosts).

According to the Cayman Islands National Trust, in days gone by, there were no community graveyards in the Cayman Islands. It was the practice for each family to be responsible for the safe burial of their dead. During the 18th century, people started to set aside a small portion of their land to serve as the family graveyard. The Woods’ graveyard, like many other plots in those years, was built on family property.

As good soil was scarce and needed to grow crops, it could not be spared for such a purpose. Much of the remaining land was made up of very hard, coral limestone, which was extremely difficult to excavate with the simple tools available.

Throughout the three islands, numerous family plots can still be seen between the road and the sea, including the Wood family plot on Monument Road opposite Bodden Town’s Coe Wood Public Beach. It had a number of wooden crosses which were used as grave markers in years past, but most were destroyed in Hurricane Ivan. In recent times, some new graves have been added to the small Wood cemetery plot.