This article originally appeared on VICE Romania.
It was Sunday morning and my car was the only one winding its way to Săpânța, a Romanian village close to the border with Ukraine. Săpânța has gained fame, IRL and online, thanks to its vibrant graveyard – known as the “Merry Cemetery” – filled with colourful wooden crosses engraved with humorous epitaphs about the people buried there. A border police car was parked discreetly on a side road, reminding me that painting crosses and smuggling cigarettes are two of the only ways to make decent money around here.
The Merry Cemetery is not just a visual novelty. It symbolises the unique and philosophical way grief is honoured in Săpânța. Here, in the extreme north of Romania, death and joy walk hand in hand, and funerals are decorated with colour, poetry and dancing. To understand more, I was heading there for the funeral of a local young man who recently passed at the age of 19.
The villagers gathered at the family of the deceased’s home in the morning, all wearing the traditional black funeral clothing. The walls were decorated with carpets and old plates, and nearly 100 attendees were trying to gather inside around the open coffin. A flag was being sewn for him, as is traditional for men who die before getting married. Next, the participants danced a traditional folk dance, quietly and without music.
I left to go and visit the cemetery, where the coffin would be taken in a few hours. Tourists stared at the colourful crosses, while two men pulled buckets of water from a freshly-dug pit and smoked cigarettes. They are the gravediggers of the Merry Cemetery, and, interestingly, they both have the same name: Viorel. Later, at the village pub, locals told me a resting place here costs somewhere between €600 to €1,000 (around £540 £900) to. The average monthly wage in Romania is €625 (about £560).
The Master and His Pupil
Anyone who wants to be buried in the Merry Cemetery must have a traditional cross made by a local craftsman. Most of those standing today were made by the originator of this tradition: Stan Ioan Pătraș, an eccentric wood sculptor born in the village in 1908.
Pătraș sculpted every cross he made from a particular type of oak, painted it blue, and decorated it with patterns and ironic poetry about the deceased’s life (which he wrote in an archaic and grammatically inconsistent manner that reflected the local dialect). The blue has become so famous, it’s known by many in Romania as “Săpânța blue”.
When Pătraș died in 1977, he left his house to one of his most promising proteges, Dumitru Pop-Tincu. Pop, who happily showed me around the workshop, told me he still makes them the exact same way.
In all these years, many Romanian elites have crossed the threshold of this house, from the late Communist leader Nicolae Ceaușescu (and his wife, Elena) to ambassadors and pop stars. People are curious to know the original meaning of these kaleidoscopic crosses. When I asked Pop, he shrugged and laughed heartily: “A lot of journalists asked Stan Pătraș the same thing. You know what his answer was? He shrugged and told them it was what he felt like doing.”
Now, Pop is the one who decides upon the poem written on the gravestone, which he does after rigorous research into the life of the deceased. He insists on using only traditional tools (chisel, hammer and planer). A chainsaw would make his job much easier and quicker, but he thinks that would be less authentic.
He told me about the cross of the young man who would be buried that day. The epitaph, he said, “will reflect the boy's humour, gentle nature, but also the fact that his death was caused by alcohol”.
In 2008, Pop registered the Săpânța cross, with its particular pattern and blue colouring, at the State Office for Inventions and Trademarks. He specified that those who make crosses in the same style, and who had also been Pătraș's disciples, must ask his permission to make such works. Outraged, the other craftsmen sued him and won. They continue to use their own methods to make crosses for the Merry Cemetery, without copyright.
Today, if the crosses weren't signed by each craftsman, only an expert would know who painted which. Of the 1,327 crosses, almost half were made by Pătraș, and the rest by his disciples. Pop is now preparing the next generation of craftsmen. But this time he is determined to leave only one successor, "so that there would be no more quarrels between them."
The dispute is not just about art, it’s about money. A cross costs between €300 and €900 (about £270 and £810), which is a big sum in a village where there's little work beyond selling souvenirs to tourists. According to Pop, the local priest Father Grigore Luțai has monopolised the cemetery. He sells tickets at the entrance and collects all the money for his parish. A sizeable sum considering that around 10,000 tourists visited the village in the past summer alone.
"If it weren't for the crosses of Stan Ioan Pătraș or mine, would tourists come to see the cemetery in Săpânța?" asked Pop. “Of course they wouldn't. It would be just another cemetery. So now, I'm litigating with the priest over the rights to the cemetery.”
I take a shortcut from Pop's house, through a broken and rusty gate at the back of the cemetery. The funeral was underway, and the sweaty gravediggers stared down at the abyss they had dug in the sticky earth. Old women gathered in groups, climbing on the nearby graves to see the recently deceased as close-up as possible. Father Luțai led the funeral procession, and gave the last instructions before the coffin was lowered into the grave, as mourners cried in the background.
At the gathering afterwards, I noticed the priest alone and seized the moment to ask some questions. Kind and cheerful, Father Luțai started talking about our ancestors, the free Dacians, and how they faced death with a smile on their face. He didn’t miss the opportunity to tell me about his impressive, but controversial achievement: he is the founder of the nearby Săpânța-Peri monastery, Europe’s tallest wooden church. He left out the fact that another founder of the monastery is Dan Adamescu, an influential businessman and media mogul who was convicted for bribery in 2016.
The priest avoided giving his opinion on the numerous lawsuits surrounding the cemetery, but he implied that he wanted to reconcile all the craftsmen, and said that his sole purpose was the "common good". He assured me that the money his parish collected from the entrance fee was spent on repairs and maintenance, a claim the old broken gate and the somewhat deplorable condition of the fence seemed to contradict.
In a bizarre turn of events, Father Luțai called me a few days later to tell me that he had a “surprise” for me – a few litres of “good brandy”. And to make the offer even more tempting, something else. “I have a girl for you,” he said, “27 years old. She was watching you at the funeral. I'll introduce her to you. Just write nicely about us and you’ll have a lot to gain.”
For the thousands of tourists who visit each year, taking selfies by the graves, laughing at the memorial poetry and buying small souvenirs from its gift shop, the Merry Cemetery is a quirky sight to behold. For the craftsmen making the crosses, it’s an ongoing legal battle. But for the older local villagers it’s none of that. It’s just the village cemetery, where their loved ones are buried.●