They say everyone has their own way of grieving, and in the village of Săpânţa in Romania, this couldn’t be more true. In this rural farming commune lies a cemetery, known as the “merry cemetery”, that looks unlike any other you’ve ever seen. Here, you won’t find the usual dark and doomful gravestones, but instead, a colourful parade of “merry” and beautifully carved wooden crosses, marking the townspeople’s graves. Of course, the word “merry”, is up for interpretation here …
In Săpânţa, if you meet your end in a violent car accident or happen to be the town drunk, it’s most likely going to end up on your epitaph. The residents here like to tell the truth about their deceased, after all, in such a small town, there are no secrets. Epitaphs in Săpânţa read like a laundry list of personal flaws, which everyone will remember fondly, ofcourse. On the cross that marks the resting place of the local butcher, he says from beyond the grave that he loved horses, and “one more thing I loved very much. To sit at a table in a bar. Next to someone else’s wife.”¹. One gets the feeling it was in fact his wife who wrote the epitaph.
The story of these unusual graves can be traced back to the 1930s, when a 14 year-old boy began carving crosses for the local cemetery. Decades later, a French journalist stumbled upon the town and discovered his work, which by then, was all over the cemetery. Behind the colours and the pictures on the crosses, there are hidden meanings. For example, yellow symbolises fertility and red is passion, and black is death. A black bird in the picture represents a tragic or suspicious death.
Like most great masters, Ioan Patras Stan had an apprentice, Dumitru Pop, who after Stan’s death, continued to craft the crosses for the townspeople of Săpânţa. In 2002, Pop told a New York Times reporter that there was only problem with his work. “… In a small town, there is not much to differentiate the routines of the inhabitants. Their lives were the same but they want their epitaphs to be different”.
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