August 3, 2015

Mysterious Romania (XIV) Sapanta's Merry Graveyard

Merry Graveyard? Yes, you read it right. There’s no mistake in the text, though the combination of the two words – merry and  graveyard or cemetery – may sound like a bad joke to some people. We generally see death and everything linked to it, a cemetery included, in a solemn, sad way.

Romanians have a saying: “A face haz de necaz.”  Meaning: grin and bear it.
The carved oak wood crosses display  a unique blend of folk art and tradition. Visitors are attracted by the merry colors and especially the moralizing epitaphs on the crosses. The few satirical lines manage to give another aspect to the most unfortunate moment in a man’s existence – death. The originality of this graveyard is the totally opposite  view on death, that is  normally regarded as a sad event.
This is the basic idea, in my opinion, of this oddity – Sapanta’s Merry Graveyard. Sapanta is a village in Maramures county, Romania. It has become a major attraction for tourists after 1990 due to its colorful wooden crosses with the native paintings that represent scenes from the life of the buried persons and even poetry in which those persons are described.
The creator. It all started with the crosses sculpted by a talented peasant, a local artist, Ioan Stan Patras ,born 1908 - died 1977. In 1935, Patras, who had just a minimum of education, sculpted the first epitaph for a boy who drowned in the Tisa river. After writing the  merry epitaph, Patras painted it with egg paint. This blue color came to be known as “albastru de Sapanta”/ Sapanta blue. Since then, for 43 years, the whole cemetery was populated with over 800 such crosses, carved  from oak wood. After Patras's death his work was continued by one of his apprentices who is restoring now the old crosses, while sculpting new ones for the people who leave this world in their community.
Present day status.The cemetery became an open-air museum and a tourist attraction.
Some of the crosses have paintings on both sides. On one side there is a description of the deceased’s life, on the other a description of the reason of his death. Most of the texts have spelling mistakes and many are written in archaic variants of the Romanian language.
Sapanta’s merry graveyard is considered the most important cemetery in Europe and the second in the world, after the Egyptian one in the Kings’Valley.  This distinction was offered to Sapanta’s Cemetery, in 1998 in the USA within the Symposium for Funeral Momuments. At that time the odd cemetery had already been included in the  UNESCO world heritage.
There are historians who consider that Patras inspired himself from the Dacian culture. Dacians view death  as a stage of  evolution in a person’s  existence. Their philosophy was based on the immortality of the soul and the belief that somebody's death was a joyful moment, as that person was getting to a better life.
Two hundred meters away from the cemetery, that unlike most cemeteries, is situated in the centre of the village, tourists can visit the memorial house of its creator. The museum displays both Patras’s life and also traditional costumes specific to Maramures and handicraft: icons, paintings, earthen pots created by Patras along his life.
One of the funniest epitaphs given as example is the one for a mother-in-law. I will try an approximate translation:

This heavy cross covers bellow

my poor, dear mother-in-law.

Had she lived for 3 more days

She’d have been reading these lines.

Beware you walking the path by

Don’t wake her up, I beg you try.

If she enters through my door

She’ll start to criticize me more.

But I’ll surely behave

So she can’t return from grave.

Stay here bellow,

 my dear mother-in-law.

The Merry Graveyard from Sapanta is, according to L’Express, the first, being followed by other cemeteries:  Pere Lachaise in Paris ( France), La Recoleta in Buenos Aires (Argentina), Grave Wood in New York (SUA), or Arlington National Cemetery (USA).
What do you think about this? In my opinion, no matter how funny or merry the epitaphs or colors are, the bitter truth is the same. 


  1. This is a fabulous place anyone would enjoy visiting. Those grave markers are glorious. What a great way to do it--celebrate, honor, kid around. Enjoyed your translation indeed.

    1. It is indeed a unique thing in Europe, and I'm sure the creator had no idea his attempt would become famous one day.
      Thank you for checking the post, Flossie!

  2. It sounds like a lovely epitaph for those who have passed. When I think of those who I loved that have passed on, I think it would be wonderful to have a description of their lives on their grave markers. I actually love haunting old cemeteries, looking at the dates and markers, and wondering about the lives the people lead. For me it is as much about history and how those who have left us lived during those times.

    I tend to think of cemeteries as serene tranquil places, so I'm not sure what I would make of the bright colors, but it sounds like a highly unique place. I bet it gets everyone talking about family and reminiscing about the departed.

    Enjoyed your translation!

    1. The epitaph idea was great. It surely is fodder to gossip for those who knew the deceased and all the things they did while alive. It is a unique place though I'm sure nobody thought about it at that time. I'm glad you enjoyed the post. Mae!

  3. Lovely view into another culture and wonderful homage to that cemetery. Many lives and much living energy rests there and is focused there. <3

    1. Even for us, here in Romania, it's unique. Thanks for stopping by Paulette!

  4. Intriguing post, Carmen! The colors are beautiful. I've always believed that death is the greatest adventure of all, besides love. Love this saying, "Grin and bear it." Something my Irish mother has said to her children often...

    1. I love your idea about death as a great adventure. Yes, an adventure into unknown and nobody teaches us how to deal with it. Thanks for visiting, Mary!

  5. Cool, love learning about new places and legends. ..would love to visit. Thank you

    1. You will find the whole country interesting. A mix of the old traditions with the new, of the wildest scenery with the modern facilities. Anyway this cemetery is an oddity for everyone.
      Thank you for dropping by, Dawn!