The Merry Cemetery

Not this man, but another buried nearby in Săpânţa's cemetery loved his horses.  "One more thing I loved very much, To sit at a table in a bar, Next to someone else's wife,"  his gravestone continues.  The words were not exactly his and who knows if he'd be too happy about them being his epitaph.  They were written by Stan Ioan Pătraş, the artist who created 700 of the unique tombstones that fill what is now dubbed "The Merry Cemetery." Each epitaph is written in first person and is a tribute to the villager it represents. Sure, this might mean betraying a person's taste for O.P.P. or strong liquor, but mostly the words simply convey what that villager did day in and day out.  Every so often, it also describes the circumstances of the person's death.
The art is simplistic, folky and bright.  People mostly look the same, which makes their action in the scene even more of a characterization.  We couldn't read any of the words while we were there, but were completely immersed in looking at the portraits.  Women were most often weaving, farming or cooking - but what instruments they were using alluded to that special dish that they may have been known for. Dough rolled out, carrots chopped or mixing bowl in hand.  Men were represented as the butchers, bartenders, shepherds, policemen and soldiers that they were. Their roles in the community.
A noteworthy number of men are depicted alongside their tractor, truck or car.  This doesn't necessarily mean they were mechanics.  Driving around the village of Săpânţa, even today, the houses don't have driveways.  Vehicles are not simply something everyone has.  What those paintings of the red pick-up or blue two-door are really showing is the pride that their owner had felt.  The accomplishment, the ownership.  As the years on the tombstones move on through the 40s, 60s, 80s, automobiles pop up more and more.  They begin to be depicted not just as part of a legacy or portrait, but also in the 'scene of death' illustrations.  Many of the gravestone have art on both sides.  Life on the front, death on the flipside.
One epitaph, written for a 3-year old, curses that "damn" taxi that "couldn't find somewhere else to stop" and struck her.  The verse is angry and heartbreaking.  Such is the case with accidental deaths caused by reckless driving or alcoholism. You can hear the blame being cast. But what else is an artist to do? Especially when you know these people personally.  When people had a chance to offer input for their own grave, I'm sure they did.  In cases where the deceased had been sick for a long time, there are declarations of gratitude to the caretakers and supporters. 
I feel like each decorated cross turns the person beneath it into a sort of folk legend.  Some are tragic figures, others are comic, most are archetypes, some are heroes. "They're lives were the same, but they want their epitaphs to be different, " Dumitru Pop remarked to the New York Times in 2002.  The Merry Cemetery has become somewhat of an unlikely tourist attraction in a tiny town just miles from the Ukrainian border.  Pop, who has been making the gravestones for almost 40 years at this point, confessed to carrying around a notebook to record juicy Sunday morning gossip.  His mentor, Pătraş, was right about there being no secrets in Săpânţa.
Stan Ioan Pătraş created the tombstones from 1935 until his death in 1977.  Before he passed, of course, he created his own.  It is in the same style most of the rest, double-sided with a portrait on the front and a scene from his life on the back.  The tableau he chose shows him at a work table, creating a tomb marker while a young man plays a violin.  His autobiographical epitaph talks about the "cross he bore," in supporting his family.  It lacks the humor or irony of many of his other verses.  His home, now a small museum, paints a different picture.  His life's work pops off the wall like a celebration.  It hardly feels like a chore, a burden - then again, these were also the instances in which his art didn't need to be consumed by death. 
Newspaper clippings, portraits and - fittingly - post-mortem degrees cover some walls, but really, what you notice is all of the art!  And all of the religious iconography that the Merry Cemetery is noticeably lacking.  Above the bed are portraits he created for Communist Party members.  He had been embraced by them, a local artist who was tied more to folk traditions than Western influence. Nicolae Ceauşescu himself, along with his equally notorious wife, stopped by to have their portraits done.  
Pătraş left his house and workshop to Dumitru Pop, his best apprentice, who continues the tradition to this day.  When we arrived at the small cottage, Pop was working away outside.  The familiarly shaped cross lay on his workbench, painted "Săpânţa blue."  He simply nodded and let us into the home and then sat in the corner as we looked around.  I wondered whose cross we'd taken him away from his work on.  Was he close with them?  Were they already dead?  Will he create his own marker like his teacher had - and, if so, what will it say?
Calling it "Merry Cemetery" may be a little misleading.  A signpost that translates it to "Happy Cemetery" in town is even more so.  Some paintings show obviously dejected people, some tributes are downright morose.  That's what makes the place so incredibly captivating - it is 'merry' only in its lack of soberness.  "Lively" would be a better word, I think.  Just like each person's life, these wooden crosses are unique and personalized, but also undeniably connected.  Dripping with local color, in many ways they are indistinguishable from one another.   The Merry Cemetery feels like its own little village within a village, with secret or mundane or too-short lives under each peaked roof.
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