At first, it seemed like an oxymoron. A “Merry Cemetery”? Isn’t that a little bit… inappropriate?
Still… my curiosity was piqued…
My Introduction to the Merry Cemetery
I first learned about the Merry Cemetery when I was watching Anthony Bourdain’s unforgettably disastrous “No Reservations” episode about his visit to Romania. At the time, I don’t think I noticed how many things were going wrong with his holiday because I was too distracted by the bowl of steaming vegetable soup that he ordered at a stall in the market in Sighetu Marmatiei.
I probably would have explored the Maramures region of Romania just for that bowl of soup alone, but when he also ventured to the nearby Merry Cemetery, full of colorful tombstones decorated with cartoon-like images and simple poems, it sealed the deal. I was going to Romania, I was going to eat vegetable soup, and I was going to see the Merry Cemetery with my own two eyes.
A Brief History of the Merry Cemetery
Sapanta is a village in northwestern Romania, near the city of Sighetu Marmatiei and the Ukrainian border. Today, it is home to about 3,000 people, most of whom live a simple, rural life.
(Technically it is written as Săpânța and pronounced “sa-pants-sa”, but it’s not easy for me to type Romanian accents on my Canadian computer!)
Back in the 1930s, a local artisan named Stan Ioan Patras decided to re-imagine the village’s cemetery. He designed a new kind of grave marker, carved from wood, featuring a simply-illustrated picture of the deceased person’s life, and showcasing a sweet, simple poem about something noteworthy from their life or death. Patras mixed a custom shade of blue, which he called Sapanta blue, and liberally brushed it across the wood as a way to represent the freedom he associated with the sky.
Patras began by carving approximately ten tombstones per year but was quickly asked to produce more and more. Over the next forty years, Patras carved more than 700 tombstones.
Of course, Patras passed away almost fifty years ago. Fortunately, he trained an apprentice, named Dumitru Pop. Patras left his house and workshop to Pop, who continues to carve these iconic blue crosses today.
Patras’ house is still standing today, so you can visit it if you leave the Merry Cemetery and explore the nearby streets of Sapanta. Look for signs pointing towards the “Casa Memoriala Stan Ioan Patras”, or simply walk until you see the colorful house with the blue-tinted wooden gate.
Visiting the Merry Cemetery
The Merry Cemetery is open daily from 8:00 am until 6:00 pm, and admission costs 5 lei (about $1.25).
Inside, there are more than 800 famous painted crosses on display. When I visited, there was a small sign with some general information in English at the entrance, but everything else was in Romanian.
Although the pictures make it easy to understand what the text is (probably) about, it can be more enjoyable to visit with a tour guide, or someone who speaks Romanian, so that you can get a better sense of the poems.
If you can’t visit with a Romanian speaker, consider using a Romanian translation app on your phone, which can at least help you with some of the key words you’ll see again and again. However, it doesn’t take a translation app to figure out when a man’s drinking habits might have contributed to his death…
… or when another man was an avid outdoorsman. You’ll see a beloved teacher, a talented musician and a grandmother who should have looked both ways before crossing the road.
These are just a few of the crosses that you can expect to see during your visit. There is no particular route that you need to take through the cemetery… instead, just take your time meandering through the crosses, contemplating both life and death.
As you can probably tell from my photos, it was a little bit rainy during my visit to the Merry Cemetery. It’s totally fine if it rains, and there is lots of room to move through the rows with an umbrella for cover. However, there isn’t an information center or bathroom, or anywhere else to take cover, so dress appropriately.
How to Get to the Merry Cemetery
The Merry Cemetery is most easily accessed from Sighetu Marmatiei (“Sighet”), the largest city in the Maramures region of Romania. I suggest staying at Vila Royal, an inexpensive, intimate hotel on the city’s main plaza with a nice restaurant on the ground floor. The front desk staff are very familiar with the Merry Cemetery and can help you to plan your visit.
Sapanta is only twenty kilometers west of Sighet and there is occasional bus service between the two, with departures from Sighet’s train station at 9:45 and 15:30 daily (at press time – check for updates here). The trip takes about twenty-five minutes and the driver can tell you return schedule.
However, most local people prefer to use informal ride sharing to travel from Sighetu Marmatiei to the Merry Cemetery. This is actually how I traveled between Sighet and Sapanta.
To join a ride share, just head to the west end of Sighet, at the corner by the pharmacy. There will be other locals there who are heading towards Sighet, and you can join together to “hire” a driver to take you to Sapanta. Remember to use the Romanian pronunciation (“sa-pants-sa”) or nobody will understand where you’re going! Your driver will depart when the car is full, and the trip should only cost a dollar or two.
Your driver will drop you off on the main road and point you towards the Merry Cemetery, which is only 500 meters south (past the Sapanta town hall). When you’re done exploring the cemetery and the surrounding village, head back to the same spot where you were dropped off (but on the opposite side of the road, of course) and flag down a ride share heading back to Sighet.
Have you ever visited an unusual cemetery? Tell me about it in the comments!