For us cemeteries are places of mourning and sadness: these are places in which the dead rest. On the tombstones usually only the dates of birth and death appear. When someone dies, their memory generally enters a kind of idealized state in the minds of those who loved them. Often their flaws are forgiven and forgotten, and the way in which they passed (especially if it was unpleasant) often goes unspoken, and on their tombstone generalized niceties are written, often reduced to as little as “Rest in Peace.”
But not everywhere!
We are in Romania, near border with Ukraine, in the town of Săpânţa, where the local cemetery has been nicknamed Cimitirul Vesel, which means Merry Cemetery. The Merry Cemetery probably draws more paying visitors than mourners.
According to some, this “extravagance” can even be traced back to the conception of the death that the Dacia tribes had before the Roman invasion: for these populations death was only a door to eternal happiness and to the possibility of meeting Zamolxes, their supreme God.
Here over 800 wooden crosses bear the life stories, dirty details, and final moments of the bodies they remember. All displayed in bright, cheery pictures and annotated with limericks are the stories of almost everyone who has died of the town of Săpânţa.
Everyone from the local barber, lumberjack, shepherd and gamekeeper to the village drunk are kept alive through carved and brightly painted pictures and epitaphs in ironic tone reflecting a fearless acceptance of death. One cross depicts a man tending his sheep, unaware of the murderous robber behind him. Nearby, leaning over her loom, is a girl of 12 and, farther afield, a singing violinist parading down the road, followed by a wedding party.
Illustrated crosses depict also soldiers beheaded but also a townsperson hit by a truck and the epigraphs reveal a surprising level of truth like:
“Sub această cruce grea
Zace biata soacră-mea
Trei zile de mai trăia
Zăceam eu și cetea ea.
Voi care treceți pă aici
Incercați să n-o treziți
Că acasă dacă vine
Iarăi cu gura pă mine
Da așa eu m-oi purta
Că-napoi n-a înturna
Stai aicea dragă soacră-mea”
“Under this heavy cross
Lies my poor mother in-law
Three more days should she have lived
I would lie, and she would read (this cross).
You, who here are passing by
Not to wake her up please try
Cause’ if she comes back home
She’ll criticise me more.
But I will surely behave
So she’ll not return from grave.
Stay here, my dear mother in-law!”
Like the poet Edgar Lee Master, who in his Spoon River Anthology wrote epitaphs that narrated the lives of the deceased in an imaginary small town in the United States, (even though often inspired by real people), so Stan Ioan Pătraş, a carpenter-painter-poet of Săpânţa, made the cheerful gravestones of the cemetery of his country, telling with images and words the life of the deceased, including some details not exactly rewarding like: “Ioan Toaderu loved horses. One more thing he loved very much. To sit at a table in a bar. Next to someone else’s wife.” The deceased town drunk has, instead, a grave showing a black skeleton dragging him down while he swigs from a bottle, noted in his epitaph as “real poison.”
Săpânţa is a small town with few secrets, and often it’s possible read the dirty details of the deceased onto the crosses.
Stan Ioan Pătraş was born in Săpânţa in 1908, and at the age of 14 he had already begun carving crosses for the local cemetery. After attending the traditional three-day-long funerary vigils where Romanians gather to down plum brandy and tell stories about the deceased, Stan Ioan Pătraş started composing brief poems to accompany his carvings. By 1935, he had begun carving clever or ironic poems, written in the archaic local language, about the deceased, as well as painting the crosses with the deceased’s image, sometimes just in the moment of death.
The artist soon developed a careful symbolism in his work: Green represented life, yellow represented fertility, red for passion, black for death. The colors were always set against a deep blue, known as Săpânţa blue, which Pătraş believed represented hope, freedom, and the sky, in addition to other symbolism like white doves for the soul, a blackbird to represent a tragic or suspicious death, all depicted onto the crosses, as did Pătraş’s dark sense of humor.
Pătraş alone carved, wrote poems and painted over 800 of these masterpieces of folk art over a period of 40 years. It wasn’t until near the end of his life, in the early 1970s, that the merry cemetery, as the town has dubbed it, was discovered by the outside world when a French journalist publicized it.
Stan Ioan Pătraş died in 1977, having carved his own cross. The inscription on his tombstone cross says:
“De cu tînăr copilaș
Io am fost Stan Ion Pătraș
Să mă ascultaț oameni buni
Ce voi spune nu-s minciuni
Cîte zile am trăit
Rău la nime n-am dorit
Dar bine cît-am putut
Orișicine mia cerut
Vai săraca lumea mea
Că greu am trăit în ea”
“Since I was a little boy
I was known as Stan Ion Pătraş
Listen to me, fellows
There are no lies in what I am going to say
All along my life
I meant no harm to anyone
But did good as much as I could
To anyone who asked
Oh, my poor World
Because It was hard living in it”
He left his house and work to his most talented apprentice, Dumitru Pop. Pop has since spent the last three decades continuing the work, carving the cemetery’s crosses, and has turned Stan’s house into the merry cemetery’s workshop-museum.
Despite the occasionally dark comedy, or merely dark, tones of the crosses, Pop says no one has ever complained about the work. “It’s the real life of a person. If he likes to drink, you say that; if he likes to work, you say that. There’s no hiding in a small town. The families actually want the true life of the person to be represented on the cross.” Pop has one complaint about the work, that it can get repetitive. “Their lives were the same, but they want their epitaphs to be different.” Also, not all the carvings can be exhibited due to political reasons.
A Romanian book called “The Crosses of Sapanta” lists all the epitaphs in the cemetery along with descriptions and insights into the meaning of the messages.