Clearly the dead can’t laugh. Or can they? To the Dacians of ancient Romania, death was merely the next step in a long journey, one that didn’t necessarily end with the extinction of one’s earthly body. To them, death was less something to fear than a spark of hope for the living. Perhaps it’s not surprising then that in 1935, a local in the tiny village of Săpânța began creating a cheerful, artful burial site for those who had moved on, so to speak. Nearly a century later, while many of the folks in town still live much the way their grandparents and great-grandparents did, the Merry Cemetery of Săpânța has grown in both popularity, and understandably, in size – it now holds over 700 unique crosses, each a colorful work of art.
Carving his first cross at age 14, Stan Ioan Pătraş followed his painter-poet heart. He dedicated his entire life to the cemetery, to immortalizing the lives of his fellow villagers. Always using oak, he had already largely perfected his style after one year, adding bright paint and clever poems and lyrics to the tall and slender tombstones.
Pătraş’s paints were natural dyes, bright colors that he used to symbolize specific elements in each cross.
He drew passion in strokes of red; green represented life; yellow, fertility; and black – clearly, death. The bright blue skies, the color of the heavens and of hope, he painted in a hue so famous it’s become known as Săpânța blue.
Small towns rarely harbor secrets for long, and the whispers of neighbors provided ample material for the lyrical Romanian lines inscribed as epitaphs.
Many of the poems publicly advertise embarrassing dirty laundry about this villager’s drinking problem or that one’s infidelity – something that would be deemed disrespectful in many cultures – but locals never complained. Since Pătraş’s work was commissioned either by the individual before dying or by their family, newcomers to the Merry Cemetery were well aware of the manner in which they might be portrayed for the prying eyes of the curious public.
A vast majority of the crosses simply reflect the person’s profession before they died.
Either that, or their actual cause of death, particularly if it was tragic or especially violent. One of a young man stands out. At just 21 years old, he was killed in a car accident.
Sadly, death comes equally for those with lives ill-lived and those with the purest of hearts. Sure enough, it came for Stan Ioan Pătraş in 1977. His work passed on to his apprentice, Dumitru Pop, a man who has continued adding to the charm and beauty of the Merry Cemetery for over 30 years.
Dumitru now lives in Pătraş’s old house, which he opens to the public. Pătraş was laid to rest in the Merry Cemetery in a tomb with a cross of his choosing.
Perhaps the 700 villagers now buried there are smiling from some otherly place as they watch the tour buses roll in and the crowds of camera-toting tourists swarm the grounds like Leiningen’s ants.
Perhaps the Dacians were wrong. Perhaps the dead are just that – dead.
Either way, despite the cheerful crosses and witty epitaphs, one thing is clear – at the Merry Cemetery of Sapanta, Death will always laugh the loudest.
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Know Before You Go
Arrive before 10 am to beat the tour buses!
Adult ticket price is 5 leu (about $1.15), plus another 3 leu for taking photos (total, $1.80).
Ticket includes entrance to the church, Biserica Nasterea Maicii Domnului, which is next to the cemetery. The church is currently undergoing a significant remodel.
Want to camp near Săpânța? Make sure to check out Hostel & Camping Iza in the nearby village of Sighetu Marmatiei. The compound is small but secure, and RVs are welcome while tent campers (including those with a car) are allowed to throw their tents up in a large field dotted with fruit trees and haystacks. Plus the customer service? The best we encountered in Romania. If you’re lucky, you’ll be greeted by the parents of the owner and they’ll be generous enough to offer some of their homemade țuică. Just make sure you pitch your tent first, or you’re likely to wake up on top of it.