This site is an outcome of the Comenius 2008-2010 multilateral project "European Journey Through Legends".

"Becoming more European does not mean forgetting our national cultural heritage, but sharing it with other European nation".

The Merry Cemetery

It is quite fascinating to witness the courage of those who do not fear death!  Fascinating for the trust that they place in God, their faith in a happy After Life, and the power that they gain upon life when they laugh in the face of death. One of the very few places in this world where this bold attitude is truly represented is Sapanta village, in Maramures. It even boasts the clever and suggestive name: the Merry Cemetery.

The colored crosses, painted in a popular manner and comprising many symbols, were conceived by Stan Patras, a local craftsman who made the first one in 1935. For 50 years the master and his apprentices transformed oak wood into beautiful crosses that still enchant visitors. But the artist didn’t stop there. Instead, he took care that every cross should have an “epitaph”: a short poem written in the first person, and full of archaic and regional words. These epitaphs made for an ironical testimony for the life of the deceased. Lines like „Here is my place to rest/Stan Ion was my name/Since I was a little one/I preferred to stay at home/Something more I did enjoy/Drinking brandy and be joy” are written on all of the crosses from this cemetery. Their continuity and beauty transforms the place into a real museum.

When she dies, 69-year-old Todosia Pop wants to be remembered as a diligent weaver, a singer in the church choir and a mother of two children. In this remote Romanian village, that might be possible.

Here in Săpânța, residents are memorialized at the local cemetery with crosses featuring humorous rhymes and caricatures depicting scenes from their lives. The tradition, introduced by local carving master Stan Ioan Patras in the mid-1930s, has earned the Sapanta graveyard the nickname “the merry cemetery.” Today it is more open-air museum and pilgrimage site than place of mourning. Scores of tourists join villagers to remember the dead in a joyful way.

All of Sapanta’s recent history is illustrated on the striking oak crosses: industrious men tending to sheep herds, driving tractors, working in warehouses and making hay. Most women, dressed in folk costumes, are seen weaving traditional woolen blankets, picking fruit and running household errands. There are also a select few who stand out because of their professions: the teacher, the priest, the bartender, the policeman and the veterinarian.

The dead get to speak for themselves in simple verses in the first person, oftentimes full of deliberate grammatical errors and regionalisms. For posterity they name their accomplishments in life and also lament their sorrows.

This epitaph, on a cross from 2006, belongs to 82-year-old Toaderu, son of Vasaiu:
Ever since I was a boy
I loved horses with great joy.
I was a hard-working man
And made a fortune with them.
I also duly helped my grandchildren
But in turn they were like villain
They didn’t mourn me one bit
And didn’t visit this pit.
Just my granddaughter God bless
For she laid me here to rest!

Further down, a man curses some “bad Hungarians” who beheaded him while he was in the fields looking after his sheep. Several other crosses stand upon empty graves marking the deaths of soldiers who died in far-away battles. In recent years, as many Sapanta residents have moved to other European Union countries for work, epitaphs have told of their adventures abroad.

On one famous cross, a three-year-old girl pours out her anger over the way her life ended so abruptly:

Burn in hell, you bloody taxi
That came from Sibiu.
Of all the places in this country
You had to stop right here.
By my house you hit me so
And sent me to the death below
And left my parents full of woe.

This cemetery is unique in all the world. Nowhere in the world is there such a place as this Merry Cemetery. The legend goes back to Dacians belief of the inmortal soul. It could be possible to associated The merry cemetery with the cult of Zalmoxis, with the belief that death is just a passage to a better life and also with the tradition of Celtic “happy death”. Sounds great, but what do you do when you realise that it was only in 1935 when Stan Ioan Patras carved the first cross?

Following your questioning mind, you start looking for answers. You soon find out that the typical cross from Sapanta is indeed an innovation introduced by Ioan Stan Pătraş in 1935 when he began personalising funerary crosses by carving epitaphs. These short witty or satirical poems reconstruct the identity of the deceased, offering us information about his/her life. Some are sad, telling of lives tragically ended by accidents or illnesses, some are funny

One famous epitaph reads:

"Underneath this heavy cross
Lies my mother in law poor
Had she lived three days more
I’d be here and she would read
You that are passing by
Try not to wake her up
For she comes back home
She’ll bite my head off
But I’ll act in the way
That she will not return
Stay here my dear

Another interesting grave shows a former local communist leader holding up the red hammer-and-sickle symbol and his epitaph ironically reads:

"Here I rest
My name is Holdiş Ion
As long as I lived in the world
I loved the [communist] party
And I strived
To please the people

It is the vivid blue that makes this cemetery look so lively. Some say Patras used blue for the background of his crosses because it symbolises hope and freedom; or because it represents spiritual awareness, healing and peace. Some say it’s the radiant blue of heaven where souls of the deceased depart after death, while others even talk about the vivid blue known today as “Sapanta blue” as reflecting images of devotion, truth and wisdom. Well, when the craftsman himself was asked about what inspired it, he replied plainly: “the sky”.

Introducing funeral inscriptions and including images to reproduce characteristic scenes of the deceased’s life, are indeed Patras’ innovations, but none of the means he uses are new: he exploited the traditions of local poetry, painting and architecture.

Carved and painted crosses are not Patras’ invention, as they can be found at the entrance of settlements and road junctions in many parts of Romania; the geometrical, floral decorations, and cosmic motifs, the serpent stripe, and the colours he used in his naïve painting are all inspired by the tradition of icons on glass and the textile dying of the area (carpets and folk costumes). The epitaphs are not his invention either, as their prosody is that of all local folk poems (ballads, Christmas carols and laments); also, as part of the funeral practices, the choir leader was supposed to compose a short poem in the name of the deceased to thank those who supported him during his life. This may have been the source of inspiration for his epitaphs as well as the two-three night wake. He made good use of the local popular art and of all means of expression available to him; his innovation consists of transferring local poetry and naïve painting into wood, and intuitively allowing the funeral cross to serve as the support for the epitaph celebrating life.

Patras hired apprentices to succeed him and he carved his funerary self-portrait in traditional dress. His inscription reflects the fact that he had to support his family from a young age after his father died:

"Ever since a little boy
I was called Stan Ion Patras
Please listen to me good folks
What I say are not lies
All the days that I lived
I never wished ill for anyone
But all the good that I could
To whoever asked for it
Oh this poor world of mine
So hard was my life in it.

It is fair to associate The merry cemetery (a fairly recent innovation) with local pre-Christian beliefs; it may have deep roots in the in belief that the soul is not mortal, as the Dacians believed “that they do not die, but that he who perishes goes to the god Zalmoxis”. People’s short stories like short fables, tragic stories are told with humor. This is what this place is about & what makes it unique is making fun-smiling about the end, our end & adding humor where usually there is only tears, pain & black. Walking between crosses & graves, reading & smiling, met the person who is buried there, connected through the text from the cross for him/her & his/her family transformed the cemetery walking into a peripatetic walk & deep transformative experience. Death is part of our lives. How we relate to it is part of our life journey.

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