Romania travel: death's lighter side

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.”

True to local values, Patras was not very forgiving of the lazy and the drunk, whose sins are clearly depicted on the crosses. One man, pictured in the village pub, confesses that he lived his life for pleasure and didn’t manage to hold onto his money. Another cautions that drinking too much delicious plum schnapps will also see them ending up in the cemetery before too long.

Patras himself is buried here, right in front of the church entrance, and has a cross which he himself designed and had carved under his supervision by two apprentices. Upon his death in 1977, a handful of Patras’ former students took over his craft and have collectively created more than 1,500 crosses since. Some are in the original plot, others in a more remote cemetery on a hill, while others were discarded when their paint deteriorated in the harsh climate. While the Ministry of Culture provides some funds to restore damaged crosses, upkeep is haphazard and often paid for by families.

Lately the cross-makers have been fighting over standards, denouncing each other for using different blues, making monuments in different sizes, obscuring other rows. One artist has a souvenir shop opposite the entrance of the cemetery, selling miniature crosses for $8 a piece.

The official master, Dumitru Pop Tincu, lives and works in Patras’ former house, part of which also functions as a museum. Outside, in a half-covered shed lies the woodworking bench where he makes new crosses and restores old ones. Pop said he has been sad to see more and more residents in recent years choose granite monuments, especially those whose burial plots are located in the secondary cemetery up the hill.

“They have to sell a cow to afford a cross,” he said, “so they prefer to have one that lasts much longer and needs no costly restoration in 10 years’ time.”

Pop never accepts epitaphs written by his fellow Sapantans during their lives, because, he says, the master needs to also create not only carve the lyrics. So the weaver Todosia Pop, who has already worked out her little poem, might have to turn elsewhere or negotiate harder.

“I have lyrics here for only one side of the cross, but maybe my family will pay more and then I’ll have another poem on the back,” she said. An all-around cross could cost them as much as $800, but most people prefer to pay half this money and have the backside just painted in simple blue.

While the merry cemetery attracts foreign tourists, bewildered Romanians, who tend to remember their dead in more somber tones, also visit. Ethnologists believe that the folk tradition in Sapanta reflects an attitude that goes much deeper than Christianity, to the times of the Dacians, the early inhabitants of these lands before the Roman conquests. According to the ancient Greek Herodotus, Dacians were fearless in battle and joyful when they were about to pass away, as they believed they would meet their supreme God, Zamolxis, in the afterworld.

After spending their lives laughing at death, some Sapantans are not afraid of what will befall them in the future. Ion son-of-Taleanca, 78, who lives across the street from the cemetery, says he is actually looking forward to escaping this life and joining his wife in the cemetery. “She’s been smiling at me from that cross for so many years now, but has just refused to come back home,” he said. “It means she’s probably better off there.”

Despite longing for his wife, Ion son-of-Taleanca can joke about his preferred epitaph:

“Here by the path
I’d like to hit the dirt
So that I can touch
Every girl’s skirt.”