Gravestones in Romania share the deceased’s life stories and dirty secrets

By Carol Kuruvilla
Sapanta is a tiny village hidden in the valley of Maramures. Their sins and passions, lives and deaths, were all carved out on their tombstones in the “Merry Cemetery.”

Death is not always as grim as it seems. At least not in Sapanta.

That’s because bodies laid to rest in this Romanian town get another chance to tell their tales.

The gravestones in Sapanta’s Cimitirul Vesel, or “Merry Cemetery” are brief glimpses into the lives of the people they immortalize. Over 1,000 blue wooden crosses have crowded into this cemetery, each illustrated with a bright, colorful picture and a darkly-humorous poem.

There’s no point in hiding secrets in this small town in Maramures, so people’s lives are captured honestly in their epitaphs, with none of the sanitizing that happens at many modern funerals. Flaws accompany the deceased into the afterlife — whether it’s a drinking habit or an adulterous relationship.

One gravestone tells the tongue-in-cheek story of a mother-in-law who took the long road to death. The rhymes are written in a local dialect, but a translation is provided courtesy of Peter Hurley and the Sapanta – Eurotrip album.
The poet drew from the town’s gossip to find inspiration for his crosses.

Under this heavy cross

my poor mother-in-law lies

Three more days she would have lived

I would lay, and she would read

You, who here are passing by

Not to wake her up please try

For if she comes home

She’ll bite my head off

But I shall behave so

As not to bring her forth

Those of you who read this

Do not do as I did

And find yourselves a good mother-in-law

To live with her in peace.

Lived to be 82. Died in 1969

Other poems are warnings, such as the one engraved on the gravestone of the town drunk, Dumitru Holdis. A skeleton clings to his legs as he raises a bottle of Sapanta’s wine to his lips.

Then, there is this angrier tale about the death of a young child.
Patras started personalizing his crosses in 1935.

May the flames torch you, taxi

That came from Sibiu

As wide as the Romanian Country is

You couldn’t stop anywhere else

But near our house

Hitting me

Grieving my parents

For nothing they will grieve more

Than their dead boy

Nor is there anger greater

Than a dead daughter

As long as my parents live

They’ll mourn me.

Another former resident, Pop Grigore, was painted on a cross along with his beloved tractor.
Each cross stands about five feet high.

Here I rest

Pop Grigore is my name

My tractor was my joy

Drowned my sorrow in my wine

I lived a troubled life

For my father left me young

Such my fate was

That I should leave life

Death, you took me early

I was only 33.
Stan Ion Patras’ apprentice Dumitru Pop Tincu, took over the trade after his teacher died. Here, Tincu creates a cross in his workshop.

The woodcarver who started the trend was Stan Ion Patras. Born in 1908, Patras was carving crosses for his cemetery by the age of 14, Atlas Obscura reports. Over the years, the crosses became deeply personal. The artist would often use a picture to show how the individual had died. He would walk through Sapanta and listen to its gossip and chatter, taking notes that would serve as inspiration for the town’s gravestones.

The colors he used may look whimsical, but each held a special meaning for Patras, according to The New York Times. Green meant life, yellow meant fertility, red illustrated passion and black meant death. These were used against a backdrop of deep Sapanta blue, which to Patras represented hope, freedom, and the sky over his hometown.

Near the end of his career, he handed his work over to an apprentice. Before he died in 1977, he carved out his own cross and left this message for the world.

Ever since boyhood

I was called Stan Ion Patras.

Good people hear what I have to say,

And I will tell you no word of a lie.

For as long as I lived

I never wished anyone harm,

Only good, as much as I could

No matter for whom

Oh this poor old world of mine

It was hard to live through it.
Read more poems below.
The epitaphs are written in a local dialect.

Stan Marie is my name

As long as I lived

I made many rugs

Which I sold to tourists

But I did not grow too old

For a disease struck me

Separating me from my loved ones

I would have wanted to live longer

To look after my grandchildren

And my old mother ‘cause she

Was always there for me

But I left this world at 59

Died in 1999.
The crosses are made out of oak and painted with symbolic colors.

Here I rest

Manaila Ion is my name

I was called Nani’s Ion

Few like me will be

Decent and handsome

But I was unlucky ’cause

I died young and now I

Rot in the ground.

Dear mother and wife may God

Comfort you and my

Children and grandchildren

For I loved everyone dearly.

And to know more about me

Look on the other side.

Patras carved all of the crosses by himself until he hired an apprentice in the 1970s.

Here I rest

Stan George is my name

My poor life

Melted like ice

I was working in the field

When Elijah struck me

My father was left upset

And my poor mother shall

Never forget me

For I left life at only

19 years of age

Died in 1954

*On Saint Elijah’s day (celebrated on July 20), it is said that people are prohibited to work their fields. If they do, Saint Elijah might get really upset and punish those who don’t cherish his celebration, by having them struck by lighting.
Patras created more than 600 crosses over a period of 40 years.

Here I rest

Pop Ion Pipis is my name

See what happened to me

Where death found me

On Miresului hill

Under the wagon wheel

For I was playing like other children

And the wagon cut me

Mother, you will mourn me

For the rest of your days

Ten years I was

And I got to sit in clay, mother

Much sorrow I brought you.

Sapanta lies near Romania’s border with Ukraine.

Here I appear as well

On my father-in-law’s cross

Pop Grigore is my name

And I want to tell you all

That I learned in school

Finished high school

I was an accountant

And helped the state

The cuckoo sang my song

To die in Sighetu

And I left this life when I

Was 35 years old.
Patras carved his own cross before he died.

Death with ugly name

Swiftly you took me away

You did not feel sorry for me

I must see my girls

And son get married

Build them beautiful house

And give them good advice

On how to live in this world

Marie, my wife

You remained as a host

To be their mom and dad

Marry them well

And raise Irina with care

I cannot join you anymore

For I have stepped on foreign lands

I have nothing more to say

From this other world I am in.

On August 15 and 16, Sapanta welcomed visitors to their town for a concert featuring Irish-Romanian music inspired by the epitaphs in the Merry Cemetery.


One response to “Gravestones in Romania share the deceased’s life stories and dirty secrets

  1. Pingback: Leaving Cluj to Sighetu by train… | study abroad adventure

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