In the first twenty-four years of my life I spent in Romania, I never had the occasion to visit this unique place in Transylvania called the Merry Cemetery.
So, about two months ago, I called my childhood friend in Romania and asked her if she wanted to join me in an adventure that would take us from Bucharest– the capital of Romania and our native city to Maramures, a Romanian region way up north, in Transylvania. It is said that if you do not visit Maramures you do not know the real Romania.
My friend jumped with joy at the idea and, soon, I was making airplane reservations.
A Childhood Reunion
I landed in Bucharest at 3:00 A.M., a long flight that took me over the US, Canada, Iceland, Germany, and, finally, Romania. Gabriela was waiting for me at the International Airport Otopeni, in Bucharest. We both hugged for a long time as excited as two little girls who just saw the ice-cream truck approaching.
The next day we took the train from Bucharest to Sighetu Marmatiei, a city along Tisa River, at the border with Ukraine. The long ride allowed us to reminisce over our carefree childhood places and the other kids (“whatever happened to David?”). We slept in our sleeping compartment for hours too.
Maramures has a beautiful landscape that takes you back in time when life was simpler. It features villages of the original architecture, with neighbors who are helpful, friendly, and with high morals. Villagers still wear traditional clothes handmade with colorful patterns and from natural fibers originating from the nearby fields.
Once there we stayed in a very picturesque bed and breakfast. From Sightetul Marmatiei we joined a touring bus and headed to Sapanta (sah-PUNTS-ah) where the famous Merry Cemetery is located. It is not a simple cemetery any longer, but a place where visitors pay few pennies to get in and look around, like an outdoor museum if you wish.
Entering the Cemetery
Over 600 multicolored crosses carved in oak are erect at five feet tall, and they are protected by two wooden beams in a shape of a roof. Each cross is personalized with the deceased figure at the center and a scene of his life, carved in an artistic, folk Naive style followed by a witty epitaph. They inform the living how and why that person died.
From the lumberjack, barber, gamekeeper, or the shepherd to the village drunk carved on them, these crosses depict a nostalgic village life and death, like a visual, historical chronicle of that certain place and time.
The colors used by the late founder of this cemetery, Ioan Stan Patras, are all symbolic to the life of each deceased: Red for Passion, Yellow for Fertility, Green for Life, and Black for untimely death.
There are over 600 stories visitors can read about: for example, the shepherd who was not aware of the murderous robber behind him, or the young man old enough to marry who was struck by lightning in the fields, or the little six-year-old girl who died prematurely, even an epitaph about the village drunk.
The Great Epitaph Cemetery Search
The following is the founder’s epitaph on his cross:
Since I was a little boy I was known as Stan Ioan 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…
This is another example of an Epitaph on a cross:
Here I lie to take my rest
They call me Stan Gei Crautu
Since I was a child I loved my sheep much
But a bad rabbit horse splattered me all over
Took away my life
Mother and father will wail for me as long as they live
Death, you have an ugly name
as you carried me away young
and took my life at age 14.
In the village of Săpânţa, Romania, the Merry Cemetery is evidence that death here is looked at not as an end, but a beginning. According to the beliefs of the Dacians – the Ancestors of the Romanian people – they welcomed Death with joy and anticipation for a better life of the Eternal Soul.
Zalmoxis is a divinity of the Getae. In later interpretations, which begin with Jordanes (6th century AC) and have proliferated during the 19th and 20th century, mainly in Romania, he was regarded as the sole God of the Getae and they believed in immortality so that they considered dying merely as going to Zalmoxis.
Humor as Part of Life and Death
This is an Epitaph full of humor and irony:
Under this heavy cross Lies my poor mother-in-law Three more days she would have lived I would lie, and she would read (this cross). You, who here are passing by Not to wake her up please try Cause’ if she comes back home She’ll criticize me more. But I’ll behave so well That she’ll not return from hell. Stay here, my dear mother-in-law!
After the founder passed away, his followers continued his artistry, one noticing the passing of time, the progress. You can see a boy’s epitaph explaining his cause of death – an accident in the subway in Paris while he was fooling around on his rollerblades. You also can read stories involving trucks, cars, trains, and many more present-day objects.
Epitaph of a cross:
Here I lie to take my rest.
Pop Mihai Sustac is my name.
Nobody should have bad luck
As I had when learned about the tractor
Far away from my village.
Death there found me
And young it took me away.
As we left this unique place, we looked at the tourists’ faces. They were curious, intrigued, and, maybe, in my opinion, a little more “at ease” with the idea of the dead and dying.
Finding the Importance of Life
The trip to Maramures was interesting and fulfilling as I reunited with my childhood friend and made me more aware that the importance of Life is remembering your family and friends.
I took a taxi to the airport in Bucharest. But before leaving, I stopped in front of the seventeen-story building where I grew up together with my parents, hoping to catch a glimpse of my Mom and Dad sipping their morning coffee, sitting facing each other on one of the balconies on the thirteenth floor.
The taxi meter was running and the emptiness of those balconies slapped me into reality. Maybe they did go to Zalmoxis and maybe this is not only a belief in vain.
As I said “Goodbye!” to the childhood places, Dad was messing up my hair with the mild breeze of the fatherly love while Mom was covering my face with kisses unusually warm for that cold season. I was back but I was not at home. I was the daughter of my parents, but I did not have parents any longer.It was my turn to go back to my son, Christopher, and make each moment of his childhood an unforgettable memory for when I, his mother, would become a wave of the Pacific Ocean pushing him back to shore to safety.
I flew together with my parents above the clouds, above Germany, North Sea, Iceland, Canada, and America. I told them that I had to land and to get ready to meet again in the flames of the two candles lit forever back at my place.
“Welcome back, Ms. Scripca!”
“Thank you. Glad to be back!”
My ocean is calm, with its eternal waves that come and go, go and come, rhythmically, more often and faster, with the unexpressed tears of hail, with the potential of a Tsunami of my soul.
“Mom, I’m so happy you came back home. What did you bring me from Romania?”
“I brought you a toy and the hope of…Eternity.”
Iolanda Scripca is a published poet, journalist, translator, photographer, and teacher who lived in Eastern Europe for the first 24 years of her life, in a loving family. Nowadays she enjoys Southern California and possesses a CA Teaching Credential from Chapman University, California. Ms. Scripca publishes in several Romanian-American Newspapers both in Romanian and English. “Lava Of My Soul” is one of her collections of poems and essays. Her photography has been featured recently on the national TV station HLN. She enjoys teaching a wide range of students from kindergarten to adults.