This weekend, we drove from Bucharest up to the north, along the border with Ukraine, to a very small village called Săpânța. Our sole purpose, to visit the Happy Cemetery (Cimitirul Vesel), in Maramures County. (This has to be our favorite county yet in Romania, and we’ve seen most of them!).

We had seen a travelogue that featured the cemetery before we moved here and it was on our list of must-see attractions. Our three-day trip took us 850 or more miles, mostly on two-lane roads through mountains, but it was worth every mile! The scenery was autumn-painted stunning. And Happy Cemetery didn’t disappoint.

We had an idea of what to expect, but were not prepared for what we found. It has to be seen to be believed.

The church is stunning, with high stone walls, fine paintings of the saints, gorgeous mosaics, and superb architecture, terminating in a green roof and spire decorated by colorful tiles and an elegant cross.

When we arrived, the Sunday Orthodox Mass was just beginning, and it lasted the entire time we were in the cemetery. Because it was broadcast over the PA system, it was the perfect accompaniment to our visit. Several widows sat outside among the crowd, begging quietly, as is their right, surely.

The cemetery is filled with brightly painted grave markers, each topped with a gable room, geometric borders, and a long description and a carving of the deceased. Each of the markers is attached to a cement rectangle with metal cleats to hold them upright. There are hundreds of plots in the cemetery, including some new graves.

Many of the markers featured customary images of women cooking or working at a loom or doing some other domestic chore with or for the family, or praying, and men doing manly things like mining or farming or building or working behind a bar.

The forest was the basis of the economy and wood is everywhere in the architecture, floral motifs and sun and moon. The Romanian peasant has never been afraid of death, a gateway to eternal rest, a natural event accepted as fate.

The cemetery is the lifetime work of the renowned painter, folk sculptor, and poet Ion Stan Pâtros and was continued by Dimitru Pop, with the first crosses put up in 1935. It is said that Patras took inspiration from the Dacian culture, which celebrates life instead of grieving death. Today, some 800 crosses adorn the cemetery.

The crosses are carved from oak, painted in “Sapanta” blue with an epitaph written in short verses of simple lyrics and full of spirit and grace. It includes the name and and what was essential in their life, their thoughts, concerns and feelings, state of mind, virtues, vices, some with a touch of humor. Many relate dramas and tragedies – war, oppression, or the death of a loved one.

The painting are an attempt to look at life in a different way. Here, those who depart from this world do so in a light-hearted tone.

Unfortunately, we were unable to decipher most of the epitaphs, but there are a few famous ones.

Underneath this heavy cross
Lies my poor mother-in-law
Three more days she would have lived
I would die, and she would read (this cross)
You, who here are passing by
Not to wake her up please try
For if she comes back home
She’ll criticize me even more
But I will behave so well
That she won’t return from hell
Stay here, my dear mother-in-law.

Each poem/epitaph is written in the first person (in Romanian), and Pătraş would usually write these little anecdotes himself after getting to know the deceased through his/her family. Families could also write their own poems, however, and it’s often these ones that are the most humorous.Dumitru Pop said that no one ever got upset about the artwork and that the families actually want the real truth to be depicted on the tombstone. He says that the most common problem he faces is the fact that it can get repetitive: “Their lives were the same, but they want their epitaphs to be different from the others.”

A collection of the epitaphs from the Merry Cemetery exist in a 2017 volume called Crucile de la Săpânța, compiled by author Roxana Mihalcea, as well as in a photography book titled The Merry Cemetery of Sapanta by Peter Kayafas, both of which can likely be found online.

As I said, each marker tells a story, and not always a sympathetic one.

This man was a drunk and probably a cheat. The double-headed black dove at the top indicates his family was worried that he might be judged a sinner.

A collection of the epitaphs from the Merry Cemetery exist in a 2017 volume called Crucile de la Săpânța, compiled by author Roxana Mihalcea, as well as in a photography book titled The Merry Cemetery of Sapanta by Peter Kayafas, both of which can likely be found online.

I’ll end with some of the more intriguing memorials we saw. Because I cannot decipher all of the text, you’ll just have to make up your own stories.

In the end, this quote from the cemetery says it all:

The Merry Cemetery is a unique place of pilgrimage. It is a place where people come to mourn their dead, but, above all, it is a place expressing in a very deep and optimistic manner the true meanings and beauties of life.