THE MERRY CEMETERY
Updated: Jul 9, 2021
Death is no laughing matter, but, by celebrating the lives of the departed, a small cemetery in northern Romania helps to bring cheer to family and friends left behind and life to the village.
Most grave markers around the world tell almost nothing about the life of the person laying below. The colorfully painted memorials of the "Merry Cemetery" in Săpânța, Romania, however, include a personal note that either describe the deceased or the mourn the circumstances of their death. Written in the folk dialect of the region, the epitaphs are often poetic, generally straightforward and sometimes funny.
Săpânța rests in Maramures county. It is a small Romanian town, just south of the Ukrainian border. Life moves slowly there. People in the region lead simple rural lives barely touched by time. Villagers still work the fields by hand and by ox. They tend flocks and spin wool. On Sundays, worshipers pray in tall wooden churches that dot the Maramures region. They love and marry. They laugh, work and cry. On occasion, they argue. Many of them drink tuica, a local form of brandy. Sometimes they drink too much. These are the lives that one sees while wandering along the narrow roads and lanes of northern Romania. These, too, are the souls reflected on the colorful oak grave markers of Săpânța's Merry Cemetery.
THE WORK OF STAN ION PATRAS
The Merry Cemetery is the life work of Stan Ion Patras. Mr. Patras started his career carving ornamental wooden gates that are common in Maramures. He also constructed wooden crosses for the cemetery in Săpânța. As he mastered his craft, Mr. Patras incorporated motifs from his gates into the designs of the grave markers. He also painted the markers to protect them. As time passed, and inspired by the region's rugs, clothes, ceramics and religious icons, Mr. Patras added brighter colors to accent the base blue paint that he normally used.
Beginning in 1935, Mr. Patras began to personalize the memorials. He carved and painted reliefs onto the markers depicting the dead performing the routines that filled their lives. The carvings include butchers, bakers, farmers, and other professions. Some include images of homelife. Mr. Patras wrote verses to accompany each image. By the time of his death in 1977, Stan Ion Patras had documented the lives of his neighbors on hundreds of grave markers. To this day his work in continued by his friend and apprentice Dumitru Pop.
THE STORIES OF THE VILLAGE
The epitaphs painted onto the Merry Cemetery's grave markers are usually written in first person. They are often satirical, sometimes funny, and always shed light on to the vices and whims of Săpânța’s citizens. Occasionally, the an images and verses portray the circumstances of a villager’s death. Regardless of the tone, Mr. Patras and Mr. Pop's work provides a sense of authentic life, not just to the good people in Săpânța, but to all of us who visit and reflect on our own deeds. Taken together, the oak memorials weave a somewhat intimate story of Săpânța.
“The life of the dead is placed in the memory of the living,”
- Marcus Tullius Cicero.
Consider the following tales told by some of the grave markers.
“I am Dioca Tahului and I stay now in the shadow of a plum tree.
So when you will stay near me you will find out about me that I was the pillar of my house. And I leave it with sorry and tears. From my childhood I liked to work and to take care of the house. I also liked to deal with horses and sheep. Nobody in the village had horses and sheep like I. I loved horses terribly and for them I even died. When sitting on a mound of grass on a wagon pulled by a horse, I fell and was killed.”
“As I lived in this world,I took the skin of many sheep
Good meat I prepared
So you can eat freely
I offer you good fat meat and to have a good desire for food.”
Some of the epitaphs are harsh and pointed, like the one about a small girl.
May the flames torch you, taxi
That came from Sibiu
As wide as the Romanian Country is
You couldn’t stop anywhere else
But near our house
Grieving my parents
For nothing they will grieve more
Than their dead boy
Nor is there anger greater
Than a dead daughter
As long as my parents live
They’ll mourn me.
Some of the eulogies are brutally honest.
"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 Mother-in-law."
"Tuica is pure venom She brings tears and torment And this it brought to me too Death put me under her foot. He who likes tuica a lot Will have at the end my lot As I have loved tuica a lot And with it in hand I died. Here rests Dumitru Holdis Lived 45 years Sudden death In 1958."
"Here I rest. Stefan is my name. As long as I lived, I liked to drink. When my wife left me, I drank because I was sad. Then I drank more to make me happy. So, it wasn’t so bad that my wife left me, Because I got to drink with my friends. I drank a lot, and now, I’m still thirsty. So you who come to my resting place, Leave a little wine here.”
The epitaph for Mr. Patras reads:
I was called Stan Ion Patras
Good people hear what I have to say
And I will tell you no word of a lie.For as long as I lived
I never wished anyone harm,
Only good, as much as I could
No matter for whom
Oh this poor old world of mine
It was hard to live through it.
The Dacians, ancestors of modern day Romanians, believed in immortality. And in some small measure, in Săpânța at least, they live forever.
For information about other curious cemeteries around the world, click over to National Geographic Top 10 Cemeteries to Visit.