It sounds a little crazy – after all, we don’t usually cemeteries with joy or positivity. They’re solemn places where we mourn the loss of loved ones, where quiet prevails and respect is shown to those buried within.
Not so at Săpânţa, where the atmosphere is one of wonder and energy and giggles. It’s called the ‘Merry Cemetery’ for a reason. Săpânţa is a small town in Maramures in the very north of Romania, about twenty minutes drive from Sighetu Marmatiei. The town is famous for it’s very interesting and unarguably unique cemetery, known as the ‘Merry Cemetery’ or Cimitirul Vesel in Romanian. The cemetery is quite small, and very colourful.
It all started in 1935, when local artist Stan Ioan Pătraş carved the first tombstone cross with an entertaining epitaph. Twenty-five years later he had carved more than eight hundred. Each is carved from oak and painted in bright colours, with traditional folk patterns bordering a carved and painted picture of the deceased, and a humorous and poetic epitaph. The pictures usually represent the person in their job, if a man, or in the home if a woman. Some show the deceased with something they loved [there’s numerous fancy cars depicted] and others show the manner of death – for example one of a miner who died in an explosion, and another of a car crash with the victim driving.
Some people may find this insulting or demeaning, especially given the content of some of the epitaphs. I can’t read Romanian, although I could understand parts of it as it’s a Romance language, but any of them apparently poke fun at the deceased or provide entertaining outlines of their lives – quite different to the meaningful phrases and basic details carved into tombstones in Australia and most countries. I thought that it was brilliant. It felt like more of a celebration of life and of the character of the individual, and the colourful wooden gravestones with brightly painted pictures made the place feel more open and welcoming. Perhaps it would also make it easier to remember the individual as a person, and celebrate their life over mourning their death. I imagine that there would have been some people who had penned their own epitaphs, wanting to have the last word.
Romanian people are generally very religious, and so at first I questioned why they would choose such tombstones – but of course they believe strongly in the immortality of the soul. The body is but a vessel in this life, and thus death should be celebrated and greeted with joy as [presumably] the deceased was now being welcomed into the eternal life in Heaven. Personally, regardless of the religious thought behind it, I think that it’s a wonderful idea. The deceased is remembered in more than a name, and the painted tombstones remind one of the living person, warts and all. Stepping into the cemetery you feel happy, bizarre as that sounds. All the colour is uplifting compared to the usual marble and grey cement.
Being unable to read the epitaphs, I enjoyed walking through the cemetery and looking at the pictures on each tombstone. Some of them were hilarious, others a little sad. I felt bad for the women buried there – the wooden memorials evidence that this part of the country remains a very traditional in society, in particular in regards to gender roles. Women are depicted cooking dinner, spinning wool, weaving on looms, and – my favourite – washing the dishes. Is that REALLY how you would want to be remembered, for washing the dishes? I know if someone put that on my grave, I’d come back and ghost-slap them big time. To be fair, there were a few nurses as well, and one that made me laugh. What exactly is she – a harlot angel?
Depictions of men were more varied. There were miners, soldiers, farmers, shepherds [including one very interesting painting of a man very close to his sheep], bartenders, doctors, taxi drivers, and a few pencil pushers who I decided must have been insurance salesmen or Communist party members.
While I was visiting, a few people came in to lay flowers on graves. Rather than looking depressed and solemn, as one usually sees in cemeteries, they seemed happy and at peace. Whether this bears any relation to the unique carved and painted wooden tombstones I cannot confirm, but I think they help. I know I’d much rather have a naive painting of me with my backpack and an entertaining poem than my name and dates of birth and death. These beautiful works of folk art capture the essence of a person, and allow the deceased to remain an individual after death, even to the strangers who wander through the small cemetery in the tiny town.
It’s pretty easy to get from Sighetu Marmatiei to Săpânţa. The best way is hitching, as the bus leaves at an ungodly hour of morning. Besides, that’s how everyone gets there. It’s hardly even real hitch hiking – you wait on a specific corner, and anyone who is going to Săpânţa stops there, waiting to fill up their car. They’ll ask for 5 lei, which is the same price as the bus, and it’s far more convenient this way. Heading back to Sighetu it was the same – wait on a corner and someone will pick you up.