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Romania travel: death's lighter side

Epitaphs in the "merry cemetery" draw visitors near and far to Sapanta.

SAPANTA, Romania — When she dies, 69-year-old Todosia Pop wants to be remembered as a diligent weaver, a singer in the church choir and a mother of two children. In this remote Romanian village, that might be possible.

Here in Sapanta, residents are memorialized at the local cemetery with crosses featuring humorous rhymes and caricatures depicting scenes from their lives. Pop wants hers to show her in front of her loom.

The tradition, introduced by local carving master Stan Ioan Patras in the mid-1930s, has earned the Sapanta graveyard the nickname “the merry cemetery.” Today it is more open-air museum and pilgrimage site than place of mourning. Scores of tourists join villagers to remember the dead in a joyful way.

All of Sapanta’s recent history is illustrated on the striking oak crosses: industrious men tending to sheep herds, driving tractors, working in warehouses and making hay. Most women, dressed in folk costumes, are seen weaving traditional woolen blankets, picking fruit and running household errands. There are also a select few who stand out because of their professions: the teacher, the priest, the bartender, the policeman and the veterinarian.

The dead get to speak for themselves in simple verses in the first person, oftentimes full of deliberate grammatical errors and regionalisms. For posterity they name their accomplishments in life and also lament their sorrows.

This epitaph, on a cross from 2006, belongs to 82-year-old Toaderu, son of Vasaiu:

“Ever since I was a boy
I loved horses with great joy.
I was a hard-working man
And made a fortune with them.
I also duly helped my grandchildren
But in turn they were like villain
They didn’t mourn me one bit
And didn’t visit this pit.
Just my granddaughter God bless
For she laid me here to rest!”

Further down, a man curses some “bad Hungarians” who beheaded him while he was in the fields looking after his sheep. Several other crosses stand upon empty graves marking the deaths of soldiers who died in far-away battles. In recent years, as many Sapanta residents have moved to other European Union countries for work, epitaphs have told of their adventures abroad.

On one famous cross, a three-year-old girl pours out her anger over the way her life ended so abruptly:

“Burn in hell, you bloody taxi
That came from Sibiu.
Of all the places in this country
You had to stop right here.
By my house you hit me so
And sent me to the death below
And left my parents full of woe.”