Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Sapânta- Merry Cemetery

The worldwide fame of Sapânta is due to the unique cemetery that has become an important tourist attraction. Some days the throngs of tourists that assault the cemetery with their cameras ready make one wonder if it really is possible to rest in peace here!
The original character of the cemetery is first of all suggested by its name: Cimitirul Vesel that means The Merry Cemetery. This paradoxical name is due to the vivid colours of the crosses and the amusing or satirical epitaphs carved on them. It is said that this joyful attitude towards death is a legacy of the Dacians who believed in the immortality of the soul and that death was only a passage to a better life. They did not see death as a tragic end, but as a chance to meet with the supreme god, Zalmoxis.
The cemetery dates back to the mid-1930’s and is the creation of the local folk artist Stan Ioan Patras, sculptor, painter and poet rolled in one. Patras used all his skills to create this masterpiece. For half a century the master created hundreds of wooden crosses, carved in a distinctive style, so famous today. After his death in 1977, his work has been carried out by his apprentice, Dumitru Pop Tincu.

The material used for the crosses is oak, which, after being properly cut and dried, is carved by hand. On the upper part of each cross is a bas-relief with a scene that describes the life of the deceased. The scenes are simple and naïve in style, but have an undeniable power: they bring back to life the inhabitants of the village and present their main occupation or a relevant aspect (either a virtue or a flaw) of their life. There are women spinning wool or weaving rugs, housewives baking bread, men cutting wood, farmers ploughing the land, shepherds tending their sheep, carpenters working the wood, musicians playing their instruments, butchers chopping lambs, teachers at their desks, alcoholics drinking, and so on.
After the carving is done, the cross is painted. The background colour is a distinctive vivid blue, called “Sapânta blue“. Then the scene and the geometrical and floral decorations of the borders are painted with vibrant colours, yellow, red, white and green.

No cross is complete without a short poem, a few simple rhymes (between 7 and 17), carved under the image. The epitaphs are written in the local dialect. Sincere, spontaneous and written in the first person, they are messages from the dead persons to the living world. The style is usually lyrical, but ironic or satirical rhymes are also frequent. Each poem contains the name of the deceased and presents briefly an essential aspect of his/her life, personality or habits; they can even talk about things that happened after the death of the person, at the burial for example, or describe how death occurred. Bad habits are humorously presented, but with a deeply moralizing intent.One famous epitaph is:
Underneath this heavy cross Lies my mother-in-law poor Had she lived three days more I would be here and she would read You that are passing by Try not to wake her up For if she comes back home She’ll bite my head off But I will act in the way That she will not return Stay here my dear Mother-in-law.

The grave marker of Stan Ioan Patras, the creator of the Merry Cemetery:

Ever since a little boy

I was called Stan Ion Patras

Please listen to me good folks

What I say are not lies

All the days that I lived

I never wished ill for anyone

But all the good that I could

To whoever asked for it

Oh this poor world of mine

So hard was my life in it.
Here I rest

And Gheorghe Pop is my name

Like a handsome mountain fir

I was in my parents’ yard

Young and kind-hearted

There were not many like me in the village

When I finished the army

I bought myself a car

And the whole country I toured

Many friends I found

Many friends that were kind

The way I liked

When I was to live my youth

In the earth I rot.
With these images and the short poems, Stan Ioan Pătraş and Dumitru Pop Tincu have managed to recreate the entire village at the cemetery and give the people a second life beyond the grave. The more than 800 painted crosses constitute a vast archive that preserves, carved in wood, the stories of the people of Săpânţa.

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