Nested among high peaks and green valleys in Northern Romania, near the Ukrainian border, lies the tiny village of Săpânța
An ordinary village with an extraordinary cemetery
It’s an ordinary village, close to the river, with the main road passing through. Like every ordinary village, also Săpânța has a cemetery.
But it’s not an ordinary one. Think of it as the European Spoon River.
In Săpânța the whole scene looks much different than a usual cemetery. Under wooden crosses painted in a characteristic bright blue, the departed past life is engraved with a humorous epitaph, a brief but poetically sincere story of the villager lying below, pointing out, especially on his/her character flaws or dirty secrets.
Underneath this heavy cross
Lies my mother in law poor
Had she lived three days more
I’d be here and she would read
You that are passing by
Try not to wake her up
For she comes back home
She’ll bite my head off
But I’ll act in the way
That she will not return
Stay here my dear
This original graveyard sprung off just before the blasting of WWII, when a local carpenter, Stan Ioan Patras, started building those colourful and humorous tombstones.
At the time, the funerals lasted three days. All the villagers would gather and tell stories about the deceased. From these stories, Patras took inspiration for the epitaphs.
As I lived in this world,
I skinned many sheep
Good meat I prepared
So you can eat freely,
I offer you good fat meat
And to have a good appetite.
Ioan Toaderu loved horses, but, he
says from beyond the grave:
One more thing I loved very much,
To sit at a table in a bar
Next to someone else’s wife.
UNESCO World Heritage Protected Site
Slowly the fame of the merry cemetery transcended the boundaries of Maramures, the region it belongs to. Today the area belongs to the UNESCO World Heritage Protected Sites.
Stan Ioan Patras continued to work on his creations for 40 years and more than 800 tombstones and limericks, until his death, in 1977.
He even wrote his own epitaph.
Since I was a little boy
I was known as Stan Ion Pătraş
Listen to me, fellows
There are no lies in what I am going to say
All along my life
I meant no harm to anyone
But did good as much as I could
To anyone who asked
Oh, my poor World
Because It was hard living in it
Like any other master or innovator, Mr Patras had a disciple. Dimitru Pop continued this tradition in painting and engraving tombstones for the deceased of the village.
This way, the graveyard has become the tale of its own inhabitants. There is probably more history among those tombstones than in many little regional museums.
The European Spoon River
That’s the European Spoon River. A place where you have under your eyes – with poetry and tenderness – the life of a rural small town of Central Europe.
Here I rest.
Stefan is my name.
As long as I lived, I liked to drink.
When my wife left me,
I drank because I was sad.
Then I drank more
to make me happy.
So, it wasn’t so bad
that my wife left me,
Because I got to drink
with my friends.
I drank a lot,
and now, I’m still thirsty.
So you who come
to my resting place,
Leave a little wine here.
But there is a great difference! The Spoon River Anthology is poetic fiction, the result of Edgar Lee Masters imagination, while the Merry Cemetery of Săpânța is real. What you find there is the poetry of real life.
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