Joe Glackin visits Romania's Merry Cemetery
A few weeks ago I was in Romania and my friend took me to the village of Sapanta to see the famous Merry Cemetery - the first outing she organised was down a salt mine, but that's for another blog! The name and the photos of the place do make it look cheery, all bright colours with quaint carvings describing locals in life and in death. But after my initial look around I did begin to wonder if 'Merry' was really the right description.
Alongside a cast of characters worthy of any soap opera; farmers and barmen, communist officials and miners, butchers and housewives, the 800 or so crosses describe a characteristic of the people buried there - fond of the drink or of other people's wives - show some incident from their life or the manner of their death - young people knocked down and killed by a drunk driver or a particularly gruesome one of a man ambushed and decapitated on his way home. Not so merry...but true. When you stand back, the Merry Cemetery with its sea of colourful carvings, is the story of a village over the last seventy five years with all the comedy, tragedy and banality of everyday life.
The cemetery started with Stan Ioan Pătraş, a local carpenter who sculpted the first tombstone crosses in 1935 after listening to the stories told about the deceased before or after the funeral. It is continued today by his apprentice who consults with the family directly before carving the cross, although they have lost none of their dark humour or sharp observation of everyday life. As he said in an interview "It's the real life of a person. If he likes to drink, you say that; if he likes to work, you say that ... there's no hiding in a small town. The families actually want the true life of the person to be represented on the cross."
The Merry Cemetery is a history of the people of Sapanta and in its own unusual way has given farmers, teachers, seamstresses and soldiers a fame usually reserved for the rich and infamous. And is a great demonstration of the truth that everybody has a story to tell and that there really is no such thing as an ordinary life.