Mounds of soil where graves have been exhumed are now a common sight in Roșia Montană.
Since 2004, the Romanian Roșia Montană Gold Corporation (RMGC) has been illegally trafficking corpses in Roșia Montană, a mountainous area in the heart of—fittingly—Transylvania. The corpses in question are buried above a vast wealth of gold that the company wants to get their hands on, so they're buying the bodies from the families of the deceased and moving them to another burial ground, footing the bill for the whole operation.
I visited Roșia Montană eight times last year in order to understand how Romania's morbid gold rush is affecting the area's community, both overground and six-feet under.
The exhumations began nine years ago with the deceased husband of Gabriela Szekely, a retired teacher. I tracked down her address in Cluj-Napoca, a city a couple of hours from Roșia Montană, where she'd moved after RMGC bought her home, and found her alone in her apartment building.
"The exhumation was mentioned in the [house] contract signed with the mining company," she told me, "but I only noticed it a year later. I told them that I wanted to bring my husband to where I live as soon as possible. They took care of all the expenses and I was very happy. It cost a lot—about 10,000 Leu [$3,975].”
A chunk of those expenses were spent on a new grave site for Mrs. Szekely and her husband in the central cemetery, the most expensive in Cluj-Napoca. She told me, "The grave was dug so deep that I'll also fit in it.”
A map showing where all the relocated bodies are being moved. (Map by Luminita Dejeu)
After the first exhumation, rumors about the “dead going away” started to circulate in Roșia Montană. The wish to have “their dead ones close” quickly spread among those who had moved away after selling their homes to the company, and the cemeteries of Roșia were soon filled with piles of excavated earth as bodies were exhumed and re-buried closer to the residents' new homes.
Local hearsay seems to suggest that the payoff for removing relatives from Roșia Montană's cemeteries (approximately $2,600 a corpse) might also have had something to do with people suddenly becoming desperate to have "their dead ones close."
Sorin Jurca, the owner of a small shop in Roșia, told me, "My aunts exhumed my grandparents without telling me, which was a shock. They said that I'm too sensitive and told me to relax because they didn't take the money, despite the fact I hadn't even asked them about that."
I began to realize how underhanded the situation was when Andrei Gruber, the owner of the hostel I stayed at in Roșia, explained another perk RMGC were offering families of the deceased. “For everyone who is exhumed, the company offers an extra grave," he told me. "This is how they convince older people, because then they stop worrying about the costs of their own funeral.”
From one angle: yes, the company is setting people up with pricey graves—a hassle they'd otherwise have to undertake themselves. From the other: they are bartering in death—disturbing the resting places of these people's loved ones so they can continue to dig away for their own gold. In doing so, they're also destroying the landscape for anyone who's chosen not to exhume their dead and still wants to visit the graves of loved ones in peace. It's disrespectful, manipulative and, more than anything, just really fucking creepy.
Dorel, a gravedigger who's been plying his trade in Roșia Montană since 1975, told me, “One time, a family took away ten corpses at once. Dude, money makes you greedy. Everyone says that they don't take money, but they do. I wouldn't move my mother and my father, even if they offered me billions.”
Unitarian priest, Arpad Palfi, standing by the grave of Jozsef Szekely, whose body was the first to be exhumed by RMGC.
His own mother and father may be safe in their graves, but that's not to say Dorel hasn't played his part in the exhumations. On a Sunday in 2004, a Unitarian priest named Arpad Palfi called on him to "take out a woman."
"If I can bury, I can also exhume!" Dorel told me, defending his decision. "I was with the niece of the woman, three monks, and Arpad," he continued. "I started digging, and when I was about 31 inches deep, a monk told me to stop. I broke the coffin with the pick, grabbed her legs, took her out, put her in the bag, and they took her away. She was just as I'd buried her, only the nails and hair looked like they had grown a little.”
That was the only exhumation Dorel ever carried out himself, but he also witnessed another that pretty much every Roșian I spoke to mentioned—the exhumation of Alexandru Toderaș, the former director of the state-owned Roșia Montană gold mine. Dorel recounted his version of the events:
“His nephew called me at around 3 PM to stand with him and guard the grave in case the diggers tried to steal anything from it. He was there with a box of beers. We drank and the workers kept on digging. They sort of broke a hole in the coffin, and when they pulled at the body, because the hole they made in the coffin was so small, the corpse came out without his head. They got the head out after with a hook. It had been five years since he died and his body wasn't decomposed."
Toderaș' exhumation, and likely many of the others RMGC carried out, were illegal. The Romanian orthodox church governs cemeteries in the country, and their rules (chapter five, article 26) state that, "Graves can only be opened seven years after the burial." Toderaș had only been buried for five years, two years short of the legal amount.
Two more exhumed graves in Roșia Montană.
Article 28 states, "According to orthodox tradition, exhumed remains will be reburied in the same place where they were originally buried.” The former director ended up in a completely different cemetery in the town of Baia Mare. That second one seems to have been ignored with every exhumation the RMGC has ordered, considering the bodies are being dug up specifically to be moved to new locations.
According to another set of laws, dictated by the Cemeteries and Crematories Administration, a valid legal motivation is needed—an autopsy, for example—to exhume a corpse. Legally, you can't just do it to get to some buried treasure.
The company also needed authorization from both the public health director in Alba county and the chief prosecutor from the town of Câmpeni in order to move Toderas' body. The two institutions contacted me in writing to say that they've never issued a permit for the exhumations in Roșia Montană, let alone an individual permit to move the body of Alexandru Toderaș.
I wanted to know whether the priests taking part in the exhumations knew that what they were doing was illegal, so I went to speak to the oldest orthodox priest in Roșia, Mr. Vasile Oprișa. He first vouched for what I'd heard about Toderaș ("Yes, the corpse without the head is true… I did the ceremony"), then he addressed the priests illegally exhuming bodies: "The children and wife came to me unexpectedly… and I didn't verify the papers."
The communal cemetery in Roșia Montană.
From the beginning of his priesthood until 2004, Oprișa had never exhumed anyone—he'd never had the need to. However, when RMGC moved in, that quickly changed. Oprișa didn't want to tell me how many graves he's opened in the last nine years, or show me any of the papers authorizing the exhumations, but he did tell me stories from the early years of the RMGC exhumations.
"There was one time where it was a father and a son together. I buried them and I exhumed them. When I saw the flesh hanging off their ribs, I had to run off to drink some jinar [a local brandy]. Another time, some people came from the county of Arad to remove 12 corpses. The cantor [a member of the church] asked me, 'Hey, priest, what the horse's dick are these people doing? They're suddenly interested now they know abut the money?'"
I spoke to Oprișa's former boss, his Eminence Andrei Andreicuț, to find out his personal stance on the Roșia exhumations, considering the Orthodox Church of Romania has declared it is officially against the RMGC project. He told me, “The Church has a position regarding exhumations in general, not just those from Roșia. The graves are sacred places and, in some parts of the country, seven years after the burial, priests perform exhumations. They wash human remains with wine, holy oil, and holy water, place the remains in a smaller coffin, then bury them again in the same place.”
Andreicuț's statement was conveniently evasive, and regardless of whether he truly believed what he was saying or not, the exhumations in Roșia certainly lack the romantic spin his Eminence put on the situation.
The Prometeu funeral service truck.
Before the priests get anywhere near the bodies, a van from the Prometeu funeral service company arrives at the cemetery. A local, who wanted to remain anonymous, told me, "When you see [the van] by the cemetery, you know another corpse is being moved out." That's because Prometeu has been contracted by RMGC to exhume, transport, and rebury all of the corpses in Roșia Montană.
Prometeu's owner, Bogdan Ion, spoke to me under a confidentiality agreement, meaning he could only really harp on about the benefits of the mining project and didn't want to say anything about the number of exhumed corpses, how many exhumations were in the pipeline and how much the overall operation has cost so far.
“I don't know how many we have exhumed so far," he told me. "I have no evidence of that. Cafes aren't obliged, after ten years, to know how many coffees they have sold. Do you understand me?" I understood him fine, but suggested that dead human bodies were a little different to hot drinks. I also put it to him that Prometeu operate illegally, without filling out the proper paperwork. "We're not responsible [for the actions of the gold company]," he answered, unsurprisingly. "The gold company arrange the exhumation, we just dig. The responsibility lies with them."
I wasn't able to find out the exact number of exhumed graves from any of the priests, the funeral services company, or the RMGC, so went to the mayor of Roșia Montană, Mr. Eugen Furdui, instead. He told me three times in 15 minutes that he isn't interested in the subject because, "The alive are alive and the dead are dead." He also didn't know how many corpses had been exhumed, but was certain that everything was legal, despite the fact he completely failed to account for any of the laws being overtly flouted.
The exhumations started so that the RMGC could illegally gain better access to Roșia Montană's gold. In the nine years since then, the ordeal has become a testament to how ready people are to sell the dead bodies of their loved ones for a quick buck. The church declares itself helpless, the authorities completely ignore the phenomenon, locals have gotten used to it, and the gold company continues to pay people off and dig up more and more of Roșia's graveyards.
In 2011, the first time I visited Roșia Montană, I found a town where locals were forced to write, "This property is not for sale," on the front of their homes, as it was the only way to avoid the gold company constantly knocking on their doors. Perhaps the next time I go back I'll find graveyards full of monuments graffitied with, "This grave is not for sale." But from what I've gathered it seems that—using the mayor's words—once the dead are dead, they're just another commodity to sell off and forget about.
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