When I say “old cemetery,” what do you picture?
Crumbling tombstones? Grand old mausoleums? Overgrown shrubbery?
Chances are, whatever you picture is fairly dark; morose; depressing. Because, in Western culture especially, Death is usually a dark, morose, and depressing subject. Even though old cemeteries may be grand and people may visit them (yes, cemetery tourism is a thing), they nearly all project a feeling of sadness to some degree, no matter where in the world they are located.
But not Merry Cemetery.
Not far from the small town of Sighetu Marmaţiei in the Maramures region of Romania lies Săpânţa, an unassuming little village where it seems like nothing has changed for the past 100 years. Farmers still go about their work in horse-drawn carts, and old women still wear patterned scarves on their heads.
But Săpânţa has a very unique claim to fame — it is home to Cimitirul Vesel, or “Merry Cemetery.”
This cemetery is unlike any I have ever seen; in fact, it’s unlike any other cemetery in the world.
Here, instead of the usual boring stone grave markers and marble mausoleums that populate just about every other graveyard in the world, each plot is adorned with a colorfully-painted wooden cross, with a poem for a epitaph.
The crosses — mostly blue with other bright highlights — show a photo of the deceased (pictured either at the moment of death, or doing his/her favorite thing in life) and offer up a glimpse into the lives of the dead through fun — and sometimes funny — poems.
This cemetery is far from being a place for solemn reflection.
In fact, you could say it’s downright light-hearted!
A man by the name of Stan Ioan Pătraş began the tradition of these crosses back in 1935, and his work was carried on by one of his apprentices, Dumitru Pop (AKA Tincu). The crosses were Pătraş’ unique way of immortalizing his community in a way that celebrated life instead of mourning death.
Each poem/epitaph is written in the first person (in Romanian), and Pătraş would usually write these little anecdotes himself after getting to know the deceased through his/her family. Families could also write their own poems, however, and it’s often these ones that are the most humorous.
Many crosses depict a cause of death (a common one being car/truck accidents), but others focus on hobbies and occupations — things that made these people happy.
There are, of course, bizarre and amusing crosses, too. (And lucky we had a Romanian guide with us who could tell us some of the best stories.)
And, while most epitaphs simply explain a bit about each person’s life, others act as warnings to those who might read them.
Today, Merry Cemetery is a national historic site that sees a trickle of visitors each day (though it’s also still a functioning cemetery and locals can be buried here if they wish). It makes a fun afternoon stop if you’re in the Maramures region to check out some of Romania’s UNESCO-recognized painted churches, and is well worth a detour.
In the end, this quote from the cemetery says it all:
The Merry Cemetery is a unique place of pilgrimage. It is a place where people come to mourn their dead, but, above all, it is a place expressing in a very deep and optimistic manner the true meanings and beauties of life.
I think the world needs more Merry Cemeteries.
How about you?
*Entry to Merry Cemetery will cost you 5 LEI, plus another 5 LEI if you want a photo license (less than $3 USD total).
*Note: I am on a complimentary “Explore Eastern Europe” tour with Intrepid Travel, but all opinions are completely my own.