Friday, July 23, 2010

Săpânţa: The Happy Cemetery

Săpânţa is a village about 15 kms west of Sighet, smack up against the Tisa river in the far north of Romania. When I first came to Maramureş in 1990, the streets in this village were lined with cearga - furry raw sheep wool blankets - for sale, hanging from every house' fence along the road that leads to Sighet. Within weeks of the end of Communism, these villagers were doing business big time. In 1990, right after the fall of Ceaucescu and the Communist Party in Romania, the peasants of Săpânţa had their own reading on freedom. After annoucement of a federal tax on home brewed brandy - the ţuica so central to Maramureş existence - the villagers of Săpânţa blockaded the main road to Sighet and effectively revolted in defense of their beloved tax-free home brew.After a couple of weeks the government backed down, and the villager's favorite hooch was safe. Yes, Maramureş folk - the moroşani - love to drink. And yes, they may even drink themselves to death, and how well they know it. Presently the most unique attraction in Săpânţa is the "Happy Cemetery." Originally begun by a peasant grave carver named Stan Petras in the 1930s, and carried on today by the Pop family, the cemetery has become one of the most popular tourism attractions in rural Romania, with tour buses pulling up and unloading foreigners hourly. We were lucky - we visited on a religious holiday just as the villagers were coming from a Church service.The grave markers in the cemetery in Săpânţa are carved and painted with scenes of the deceased accompanied by a poem describing their fate in Maramureş dialect. About half of them have two painted sides - one showing the deceased as they were in life, and the other showing either the way they died or illustrating some quirk that made them the talk of the village. A good woman is celebrated on side A:
But everybody in the village knows about her B side... she obviously made an impression on the village that would not go away even after she had left this mortal coil...
The most interesting of the carved grave markers celebrate the fickle nature of death: machines just happen to blow up, planes accidentally fall out of the sky, cars just naturally tend to hit people:
And drink. The poetry of the grave markers is wry and reflects the way village opinion saw the deceased during their lives. People in Maramureş drink a lot of home brew, and some drink more than others. It's a hard country with few pleasures, and from the few fruits they can coax from the poor mountain soil they brew plum and apple brandy.
Tavern keepers are also well represented in the other side. This one apparently drank himself to a deathly white paleness on his road to the afterlife. Or else the artist had run out of beige paint.Trains are a particular danger. After a walk around the cemetery you simply don't want to go near a train. They kill in all sorts of ways. You can get all dressed up to go out and still manage to find yourself slammed by a locomotive:
From the evidence on some of the grave markers it seems that Romanians have been experimenting with the notion of extreme sports long before the arrival of cable television. Note to self: definitely do not try roller skating along the railroad tracks. Ever.
Or you can simply be walking along the tracks and suddenly find yourself crushed to death. The look on this poor fellow's face says it all. Oops!The poem accompanying this gravestone said something along the lines "And now my children are in the hands of God / Which is probably better than being in my hands" The laws of Darwinsim are always a bitter pill to take. And speaking of bitter pills: the Romanian attitude towards visiting the hospital:Ever notice how many people go to the hospital and then die? Lesson: Don't go to the hospital! Some of the markers date back to earlier times and reflect historical realities. This one is of a shepherd cruelly killed and beheaded by Hungarian Gendarmes during WWII.
Friendly fire incidents among the Border Guards are also a nuisance.
And many of the graves show the happier moments of village life, with poems declaring sentiments like "In my life I loved to sing / And always bought a round / And paid the fiddler well/ But now i'm dead and gone"
In Maramureş the concept of being "oamnenii bunii" - good folks - is the motto for the approved behavior. And this means being a hard worker and a hard partier: drinking, singing, dancing, dying.
This is the soul of the Maramures region. The peasants up here have held off all of the twentieth century's interlopers - they maintain their Greek-Orthodox church traditions, their thick country dialect, their bewildering fiddle music, their hard drinking ways, and their tradition-bound ideas about life and death. They are some of the toughest, most moral people you will find in Europe today. Let them lift a glass or two in peace. Like the song says Aşa beau oamenii buni "That's how the good folk drink/ They drink from Saturday until Monday."


carpetblogger said...

Love this. Thanks.

Jack Falk said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jack Falk said...

Do you know about the extraordinary coffins made by the Ghanaian craftsman Kane Quaye? Seattle Art Museum has one (a Mercedes Benz!) and it sparked my memories of Sapanta. Thanks for posting this.

Dan Carkner said...

This is really cool. Thanks again for posting this stuff :)

Unknown said...

Those grave markers are heartbreaking. Absolutely beautiful.

zmkc said...

Thanks for all these great posts and pictures of your travels.

Joel said...

The cemetery seems only to have expanded since we were there in 1984. BTW, the Far Outliers just finished a very pleasant and nostalgic Romanian meal (omakase) at Sarmale Restaurant in Nagoya, run by a musician expat from Baia Mare named Nagy Ferencz. I hope it is still here when we come next year.

Paprikapink said...

Thank you for sharing this!

Singe Addams said...

That's fantastic! I'd so hate to see what my gravestone would look like, though.

Clara Berta said...

Lovely photos and I can certainly relate, since my daddy likes to make Hungarian brandy made of peaches and it's pretty tasty, but too strong for me at 80 proof.

writtenwyrdd said...

I've been wanting to visit this region, and now I know I want to visit this particular area, too. Thanks for sharing!

Anonymous said...

What do you think about this cemetery?????????
First, I want to explain my demarche regarding this post.
I am making a research, for my disertation paper, regarding the perception of this cemetery.

So, I have several questions, very simple
1. Where did you find out about this cemetery??? (Tv, mass-media, internet, travel agencies etc)
2. Do you consider that this cemetery is joyfull or not???
3.What do you think - is it art-passion or handicraft?
4.What elements drew your attention first?? ornamental elements, the text (epitaph), "the roof", colors etc???
5.What do you think that the so called "Sapanta blue" means???
6. Your general impressions about this cemetery:)

Thank you so much for your comments..

P.S. Any comment is welcomed
Best regards,
Marinela Paraschiv

Margaret Wiese said...

Thank you for writing about this place. I saw this via BBC on the internet. This cemetary definately has a joyful essence, the markers are art. I am first attracted by the ornamental elements, the predominant blues make me think of blue sky, and perhaps allude to Heaven. I also very much like that the 'plots' are separate and have plantings on many, not just continuous grass or common groundcover. I love the fact that one side shows a representation of the person's life while the other depicts the manner of death. If the language is lost over time, they will still retain the history of people on an individual basis. Definately a happy place like a fairyland rather than a scary sad place. I could imagine children running through here without the scary, foreboding usual feel of a cemetary.

Andreea-Lygia said...

Nice article I must say. I'll be there next week and I'm looking forward to see it. Even if it is my ountry, I never got to get there, maybe also because I use to live so far south. Now it's time! It's interesting though, how The Merry Cemetery is seen through the eyes of a foreigner, especially because for many is difficult to understand this way of ridiculizing the death and laugh about troubles, so specific to the Romanian peasant and Romanians in general.

But, if I may, there are some mistakes: it is "Ceausescu" and not "Ceaucescu", is "oameni buni" and not "oamenii bunii" (in fact that is quite a grammar mistake:) ), people are Romanian-Orthodox and not Greek (actually it is quite a difference between), people speak what is called "regionalisms" and not a separate dialect. Romanian language has dialects, but those are completely something else. If it was a dialect we, the ones from south, would have not been able to understand them, but we do and quite well. And last, but not least, it is "Dumnezeu", the Romanian word for God and not "Dumneazu".

Have a nice day!

Anonymous said...

Here is some info about "greco-catolice" :)

Anonymous said...

For Anonymus above: Greek Catholic is one rite and Greek Orthodox (how the author has written) is a different one.

Iolanda Reinsmith said...

Thank you for taking the time to write this. It captures the essence of the old Romanian traditions.

Anonymous said...

This is a place I've long wanted to visit. Thanks for including all the photos!