Merry Cemetery: A Different Way to Look at Death

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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.

Merry Cemetery, Romania

Merry Cemetery, Romania
How could you possibly be depressed here?

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.”

Merry Cemetery, Romania

Merry Cemetery, Romania

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.

Merry Cemetery, Romania

Merry Cemetery, Romania

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!

Merry Cemetery, Romania

Merry Cemetery, Romania

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.

Merry Cemetery, Romania
There was one epitaph written by a man about his mother-in-law… I'm sure you can imagine how it went!

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.

Merry Cemetery, Romania
Car accidents are depicted here aplenty.
Merry Cemetery, Romania
This man really loved communism.

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.)

Merry Cemetery, Romania
This man was murdered and buried without his head.
Merry Cemetery, Romania
THIS IS NOT WHAT IT LOOKS LIKE!

And, while most epitaphs simply explain a bit about each person's life, others act as warnings to those who might read them.

Merry Cemetery, Romania
This man was a drunk and probably a cheat. The double-headed black dove at the top indicates his family was worried that he might be judged a sinner.

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.

Merry Cemetery, Romania

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? 

READ NEXT: Cemeteries Around the World

 

*Note: I am on a complimentary “Explore Eastern Europe” tour with Intrepid Travel, but all opinions are completely my own.

If you're interested in doing the same tour I did, you can check it out here.

Explore Eastern Europe tour

"It's a dangerous business, going out your door. You step onto the road, and, if you don't keep your feet, there's no telling where you might get swept off to." - JRR Tolkien

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64 Comments on “Merry Cemetery: A Different Way to Look at Death

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  1. Even though I’m Romanian, it was not until last year that I visited this place. To be honest, it was not how I expected, I guess the word merry (ro: vesel) gave me different expectations. What I actually found was an emotional place, that provided a glimpse into the lives of the people buried there: their accomplishments, family, happy times and tragedies. It helps to know the language as you can better understand their stories, but i think you can be touched even if you don’t know Romanian.

      It’s such a fascinating place; I’m glad you were able to visit!

    Hi Amanda
    Great post to help me plan a trip to Romania next spring.
    A question – did you visit the Painted monasteries and the Wooden churches in the Maramures region? Did you stay at Cluj-Napoca? If so any recommendations for hotels there?
    Thank you,
    Vinodh

      I did spend some time in the Maramures region, and we visited one or two churches as part of a larger tour of the area. I stayed in a village called Vadu Izei at a place called Pensiunea Ardelean, which was lovely!

    I’m looking for a person who has attended a funeral at the Merry Cemetery who is interested in sharing his or her story for a research project. If anyone who reads this is interested, please reply! Thanks!

    I am actually from Romania and I have been 3 times to “Cimitirul Vesel” , how it’s pronounced in romanian and it’s a really lovely place to visit. It’s something about it that makes you happy, although it is commonly a place of sadness.

    I’m from Romania , i read this article and yes it’s very funny in this graveyard. Try the traditional food when you visit Romania.

      I enjoyed this cemetery a lot! (Which I know is kind of weird, but it’s an interesting place!)

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