In the land that used to be Transylvania, there is a remote village called Sapanta that is famous for its cemetery. It’s not a sad place with dying flowers on weathered gray tombstones; rather, it’s called the Merry Cemetery because of its colorful crosses, its atmosphere of fun, the down-to-earth or realistic verses to be found here, and its hand-painted depictions of the deceased.
In Sapanta’s cemetery, the stories of the deceased are told in pictures and words. The custom was started by Stan Ioan Patras, who made his first cross in 1935, working out of a small wooden hut on the grounds. By the time he died in 1977 he had told the story of 800 villagers’ lives and deaths.
As Christine Popp of The New York Times says: “Everyone from the local barber, lumberjack, shepherd and gamekeeper to the village drunk are kept alive through carved and brightly painted pictures and earthy, sometimes witty, epitaphs.”
The oak crosses have little roofs, with a central image of the deceased, and stand about five feet high. Patras used colors that have meaning in the surrounding geometric patterns: the blue background signified hope and freedom, while yellow stood for fertility, green stood for life, red for passion, and black for unexpected or early death.
The colors also tell the story of the person’s life. More red means he or she had a passion for life while yellow would mean many progeny. Patras felt a need to continue the tradition he started even after his own death, so took on apprentices to teach them the ins and outs of making the Merry Cemetery crosses.
The images often showed the people going about their daily lives: a 12-year-old at a loom, a man on a tractor, a woman beating a carpet, a teacher sitting at his desk. Earlier there were pictures of horses pulling carts, and as time went on, more and more cars and trucks appeared in the images. The content of the images was always related to the individual portrayed in the cross in some way.
Nowadays, the village has approximately 10 deaths a year, and Dimitru Pop, an apprentice of Patras, continues the work. The art is still hand-carved and painted, and epitaphs are still written to chime with the people who are laid to rest.
The following translation of an epitaph is Patras’ own:
Since I was a little boy
I was known as Stan Ioan Pătraş
Listen to me, fellows
There are no lies in what I am going to say
All along my life
I meant no harm to anyone
But did good as much as I could
To anyone who asked
Oh, my poor World
Because It was hard living in it
And there are some humorous epitaphs, too:
“Underneath this heavy cross. Lies my mother in law poor… Try not to wake her up. For if she comes back home. She’ll bite my head off.”
…Now I will tell you a good one
I kind of liked the plum ţuica
With my friends at the pub
I used to forget what I came for
Atlas Obscura points out that even supposed secrets and vices made it into the epitaphs, quoting one: “”Ioan Toaderu loved horses. One more thing he loved very much. To sit at a table in a bar. Next to someone else’s wife.” The deceased town drunk has a grave showing a black skeleton dragging him down while he swigs from a bottle, noted in his epitaph as “real poison”.”
Certainly not your typical cemetery or selection of epitaphs – but ones that truly celebrate the person, flaws and all.