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. What a beautiful place. Cemeteries are among my favored photographic subjects. You’ve captured this so well! Thank you!

      I really like visiting cemeteries, too – especially ones as unique as this!

    I love this! I love the beautiful decorations on all the grave markers and how much personality they contain. I wish that more graveyards would have monuments like these, even if some of them can get a bit out of the ordinary. Could you imagine paying respects to an ancestor whose decapitation was displayed on the grave marker? Anyway, thanks for sharing.

      It’s a fascinating place!!

    […] There were gigantic and heavily decorated poles stuck in the earth. I was honestly surprised. Did they really had something to do with all that vampire nonsense? And…of course not! Funerary poles keep alive the long and honourary Romanian woodcarving tradition. The North of Transylvania is famous for exquisite woodcarvings and beautiful cemeteries. Have you ever heard of the Merry Cemetery? […]

    Beautiful article! I enjoyed reading it. The Merry Cemetery from Sapanta has become truly famous worldwide due to the ways in which the locals chose to laugh at Death.

    Did you know that the first tombs were adorned at the initiative of the folk craftsman Stan Ioan Patras, who wanted to add a humorous note to these inherently sad goodbyes? Today, the tradition is carried on by his apprentice, Dumitru Pop Tincu, and the Merry Cemetery now counts over 800 bright-coloured crosses.

      Yes, it’s such an interesting place! I’m so glad I got to visit.

    What an unusual cemetery. When I travelled to Northern Argentina (near Bolivia) I was surprised by the colourful Indian cemeteries. Quite as colourful like the one you pictured in your post. It had a nice feel to it, as if it was a place to celebrate more than to weep.

      You can find colorful cemeteries in Central America, as well as in Asia, too (I saw a very colorful one in Vietnam, for example). This one definitely celebrates life, though! The little stories on each grave marker make it so unique.

    This is fantastic! I love cemeteries and tombs; this is amazing. I love the pictures and stories; so colourful.

    I just visited this cemetery and I really liked it. It was a pity I didn’t have so much time available to read all the stories. For me, the funniest I found was the one related to the mother-in-law written by the son-in-law: “here rests my mother-in-law, if she would live for few more days, I would be berried and she will read this, please do not make noise, so she won’t be awakened!”. Unfortunately, I cannot reproduce the rhymes in Romanian.

      Haha, yes I remember being told about that one! It’s such a cool cemetery. I was lucky to have a guide with me who was able to interpret some of the stories.

    That is so bizarre, but what a fantastic way to view and celebrate death. I normally do think of old tombstones and weeping willows, but I love how “alive” this cemetery is.

      I’ve been to quite a few cemeteries on my travels around the world, but this is by far my favorite. Calling it “alive” is spot-on!

    […] of the summer for me. We began in the picturesque Maramures region, visiting monasteries and a happy cemetery. Next it was on to colorful Sighisoara, rural Viscri, and the tourist center of Brasov before […]

    […] which is an old Gothic-style church. Also check out the nearby German graveyard. Unlike Merry Cemetery, this graveyard IS a bit overgrown and solemn, but it’s alright for a quiet […]

    That sure looks different! I like the ones focusing on life much better than the ones depicting the cause of death. Especially with the merry focus, they kind of fit better too I think.

      Yes, I think I agree! Though, some of them were just amusing, even if they were focusing on the death of someone.

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