In A Nutshell
Cemeteries are generally places that attract somber mourners, or those looking for a glimpse into lives past and into their own future. Romania’s Merry Cemetery is a little different, with colorful, intricately carved oak plaques on each grave. The carvings, originally started by a single artisan in 1935, depict the person as they were in life. Many show the deceased surrounded by children or tending their sheep (although some of the more bizarre show the deceased meeting their end).
The Whole Bushel
In 1935, carpenter and artisan Ion Stan Patras began his life’s mission to personalize the gravestones of the Merry Cemetery, located in a cemetery behind the Church of Assumption in Romania’s 5,000-resident village of Sapanta. He wanted to memorialize those that had passed on, and began writing poems during the traditional part of Romanian funerals where mourners drink brandy and swap stories about the recently departed.
Soon, that turned into carving headstones for each of the graves. The carvings are tall—about 1.5 meters (5 ft), and there are more than 600 of them. Each one is personalized, and tells a story about the person buried beneath it. Alternately poignant, heartbreaking, and humorous, the cemetery provides more than just a place for a body. It gives visitors a look into the lives that have gone before them, and a reason to look more closely at how they themselves want to be remembered.
And because it’s a relatively small town, that means there’s no hiding of secrets. What visitors find on the carved oak grave markers isn’t always in line with the idea of not speaking ill of the dead.
One carving and the accompanying poem refers to the deceased man’s love of horses, and his one love greater than that—sitting at a bar next to someone else’s wife. On another, the town drunk is grabbed by a skeleton and dragged to the ground while a bottle is still at his lips.
But they’re not all like that. The woodcarver, and the apprentice that has since taken over for him, has always been careful to do true justice to the life that is being honored with the marker. Some people are shown tending their sheep, surrounded by their children, or working in the fields. Many have the smallest of details that serve as a reminder that the grave belongs to a real person, instead of fading from memory to become only a marker. One man promises that the first thing he’s going to do in heaven is eat a cheese sandwich. Another asks her little sister not to forget her, apologizing for having to leave her so young.
Some tells stories, such as the one clearly depicted in a three-paneled carving. The first panel shows a young couple newly married, while the second shows them sitting apart while he has a drink in one hand. In the third, she is in another room with another man.
Some are morbid, depicting how the person died. Some are beheaded or shot, other, more recent ones, depict more modern deaths like car accidents.
And the colors mean something, too. The background of all the markers are blue, representing freedom. Those with many children have yellow on theirs, for fertility. And a black bird in the carving means there was something suspicious about the death.
Aside from the whimsical nature of the creation of the grave markers, they present an interesting look at the personal lives of those living in a small town. We get to see what was most important to these people: their family and friends, their favorite things, their hopes, their dreams, their end.
Fortunately, there doesn’t look to be any end in sight for this unique, poignant, and sometimes funny little cemetery. The original creator’s protege, Dumitru Pop, has apprentices lined up to take over for him when he retires. He acknowledges that one day, he’ll have a grave marker like his mentor.
Ion Stan Patras’s carving states that he did it all because he loved people, and he wanted to keep visitors coming to the cemetery so they were not forgotten. He succeeded.