Death does not have to be dark and gloomy. In fact, it can reflect art and humor, as I learned during my visit to a small village in Transylvania. I stayed with a local family at their country farm B&B in Maramureș, perhaps the most charming place in Romania.
Traveling With a Local
My guide Ramona Cazacu of MyRomania, and I did day trips to see weekend markets, wood makers, wool weavers, painted churches and charming villages around the area. A stark contrast from the capital of Bucharest, the northern part of Romania we were at, was mostly rural, with friendly people and lots of authentic culture.
An Open Air Museum
We visited the Săpânţa-Peri Monastery, also known as the Merry Cemetery. It is said that one of the local carvers, Stan Ioan Pătraş, thought people needed to cheer up after losing their loved ones, and decided to make headstones in bright blue colors. These intricately designed geometrical crosses reflected the life of the person buried in pictorial stories, as well as firsthand narrations of how they lived and how they died.
The cemetery became popular as more and more people started asking for these intriguing and fun headstones (and still do today).
It’s best to have a translator with you so they can read out the funny stories (written in a local dialect) as you stroll through the rows dotted with 1,000 plus headstones.
Comedy in Death
Some also include comic poems, limericks and stories of deceit, cheating, beheadings, road accidents, disease, and dirty secrets – in a light hearted way!
One of the crosses says, “Underneath this heavy cross. Lies my poor mother-in-law. Try not to wake her up. For if she comes back home, she’ll bite my head off.”
Another one reads, “Ioan Toaderu loved horses. One more thing he loved very much was to sit at a table in a bar, next to someone else’s wife.”
Use of Symbolism
The colors used in the images also have meanings. Green represents life, yellow fertility, red for passion, and black for death. The deep blue background represents hope, freedom, and the sky. White doves are for the soul, and a blackbird is a symbol of tragic or suspicious death.
Stan Ioan Pătraş died in 1977, but his talented apprentice, Dumitru Pop still continuing the work carving the cemetery’s crosses. He has turned Stan’s house into the Merry Cemetery’s workshop-museum.
A Romanian book – “The Crosses of Sapanta” lists all the epitaphs in the cemetery along with descriptions and insights into the meaning of the messages.
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