‘A dreaded sunny day,
So I’ll meet you at the cemetery gates,
Keats and Yeats are on your side,
But you lose, because Wilde is on mine.’
– Morrissey/Marr

‘In the midst of life, we are in death’, says the Book of Common Prayer (1662).
When someone dies, their memory generally enters an idealised realm in the minds of those who loved them. Their flaws are forgiven and forgotten, and their offences overlooked. For the faithful, they pass among the spirits of the righteous into a place of light, green pasture, and refreshment.
The way in which they passed away often goes unspoken.
Not so in the town of Sapanta, Romania. In the ‘Merry Cemetery’, over 800 wooden crosses tell the life stories, intimate details and final moments of the townsfolk – displayed in bright, colourful pictures and annotated with jokes and stories of the departed.
Illustrated crosses depict soldiers being beheaded and a townsperson being hit by a truck. The epigraphs reveal a surprising level of truth. One states: ‘Underneath this heavy cross lies my mother in law. Try not to wake her up. If she comes back home. She’ll bite my head off.’
Stan Ioan Pătraş was born in Sapanta in 1908 and started carving crosses for the cemetery at the age of 14. By 1935, Pătraş had begun carving ironic inscriptions in the local dialect about the deceased, as well as painting the crosses with their image, often including the way in which they died.
He developed a symbolism in his carvings; Green represented life, yellow represented fertility, red for passion, black for death. The colours were painted on a deep blue, known as Sapanta blue, which represented hope, freedom and the sky. Other symbolism – white doves for the soul, a blackbird to represent a tragic or suspicious death – made their way onto the crosses, as did a dark sense of humour.
One carving reads, ‘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.’
Pătraş died in 1977, having carved his own cross, and left his house and work to his most talented apprentice, Dumitru Pop, who continued the craft. The grave slabs are made of oak. Pop cuts the trees down himself.
Despite the dark comedy, no-one has ever complained. “It’s the real life of a person. If he likes to drink, you say that; if he likes to work, you say that. The families want the true life of the person to be represented on the cross.”
Pop says that the work can get repetitive. “Their lives were the same, but they want their epitaphs to be different.” A book called ‘The Crosses of Sapanta’ lists the captions in the cemetery.
Even the Romanian Communists embraced the Merry Cemetery. The grave of Communist official Ioan Holdis shows a hammer and sickle and a Bible. The inscription says: ‘As long as I lived, I loved the Party. And all my life I tried to help the people.’
Ethnologists say Sapanta’s laughing cemetery is likely a reflection of attitudes that come from the time of the Dacians, early inhabitants of Romania, and have been passed down in folklore ever since. The historian Herodotus said the Dacians were fearless in battle and went laughing to their graves because they believed they were going to meet Zalmoxis, their supreme god.
The Reverend Grigore Lutai, Sapanta’s Orthodox priest, agrees. “The people here don’t react to death as though it were a tragedy,” he said. “Death is just a passage to another life.”
James Neophytou

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