Dead Funny Up North: Săpânţa’s Unique Cemetery
It probably takes comedian Hugh Laurie’s straight face to be able to announce serenely, “This lovely summer we warmly recommend that you go to the cemetery.” The Merry Cemetery. “Downtown” the village of Săpânţa, a little settlement perched up north in Maramureş County, close to Romania’s border with Ukraine, the Merry Cemetery is final home to around 800 deceased villagers, and a UNESCO heritage site which has made it repeatedly in the top 10 of world’s best funerary destinations. French weekly L’Express, for instance, includes it among “les plus beaux cimetières du monde”, along with renowned Père Lachaise in Paris. 
What makes the Merry Cemetery special? First, it is said to “defy death”, or at least our standard notion of it, by drawing on traditions from ancient Dacia: back then, death was apparently an occasion for merriment, not mourning, as the departed were leaving this miserable world to re-join god Zamolxis in “complete happiness”.  Secondly, the cemetery’s tombstones make up a multicoloured mosaic of hand-made painted crosses carved in oak wood, each with its own portrait of the deceased and a witty versed epitaph listing, in a humorous fashion, the person’s name, occupation, main vices and virtues, as well as the cause of death. Finally, the cemetery looks like a brilliant grassroots expression of the Romanians’ core virtue: a face haz de necaz (“to laugh out of rough”, i.e. to take life’s hard knocks lightly by making fun of them).
It may seem surprising that such a unique funerary enterprise came out not of a time-immemorial local tradition, but rather one man’s initiative: craftsman Stan Ioan Pătraş, a Săpânţa villager, carved the first multicoloured cross in 1935, inspired by his experience of attending several wakes. (The latter, in countryside Romania, are sometimes 3-day gatherings during which people who knew the deceased congregate to keep watch over the corpse the nights before the burial, but also to eat, drink, share memories of the person’s life, and they don’t shy away from cracking the occasional joke at the expense of their late fellow villager. ) Following master Pătraş’s own death (1977), one of his apprentices, Dumitru Pop, took over the funny funeral business, the premises of which have meanwhile become the Stan Ioan Pătraş Memorial House: located 200 metres away from the cemetery, today it is home to a lovely collection of folk costumes, pottery, wood-carved icons and other objects crafted by master Pătraş.
Back to the cemetery itself, it’s worth sampling some of the charm – and craft - of its five-foot crosses. Colour-wise, the crosses “feature geometric designs” and follow a colour code: yellow stands for fertility, meaning that the deceased had many children, red - for passion, green – for life, black – early death, and the pervasive “Săpânţa blue” – hope and freedom.  As for the epitaphs, here’s a rather “politically incorrect” one about a classic butt of male jokes and much grumbling, i.e. mothers-in-law:
Curious for more? If you’re interested in a lovely summer week around the Merry Cemetery, be well advised that a great time to visit would be August. It’s the month when Mercury Promotion co-founder Peter Hurley, an Irishman in love with Romania, organises Festivalul Drumul Lung spre Cimitirul Vesel / The Long Road to the Merry Cemetery Festival, an intercultural event bridging more than 63 participating villages in the Maramureş County, and their amazing plethora of lively local traditions.
Merry Cemetery-Săpânţa Useful Info
Timetable & entrance fee: 10 am – 6 pm daily, 5 RON/adult
Camera fee: 5 RON
Video fee: 10 RON
Stan Ioan Pătraş Memorial House entrance fee: 3 RON
Location: 64 kilometres northwest of the city of Baia Mare, 15 minutes outside of Sighetu Marmaţiei
Access by plane: nearest aiport Baia Mare
Access by train: nearest train station Sighetu Marmaţiei
Access by car: DN 19 (national road) from Sighetu Marmaţiei > Sarasău > Câmpulung > Săpânța; or DJ 183
(county road) from Baia Mare
Where to stay: 15 local guest houses & hostels - find out more here
Where to eat: 2 local restaurants
“Cimitirul vesel din Săpânţa”. Wikipedia. Accessed 2 Jul 2018. <https://ro.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cimitirul_Vesel_din_S%C4%83p%C3%A2n%C8%9Ba>