Ever since Bram Stoker dipped his quill into the inkpot, Romania’s image has been one of bloodied fangs and death. But the bucolic northern district of Maramureș, just a few kilometres from the Ukrainian border, is a place where death isn’t symbolised by screaming damsels with punctured necks.
The hamlet of Săpânţa is surrounded by rolling hills and crop-filled paddocks. It is home to the Merry Cemetery. Forget drab gravestones mottled with lichen: here you’ll find row on row of bright blue crosses, each with a colourful illustration depicting a scene from the dead person’s life. Some etchings actually show the manner of death.
First-person poems are etched beneath the illustrations; it’s as if the dead are talking. Some of these poems are light-hearted to the point of irreverence. On one cross, a man talks about his mother-in-law who is buried beside him. It seems she still has a hold on him even in the afterlife: “For those of you passing this way try not to wake her up … I intend to see that she remains here, safely in her grave.”
Mocking the dead may seem slightly tasteless, but the philosophy behind the Merry Cemetery is that we should not view death as tragic; rather, it is a moment when the deceased pass through a gateway to a more prosperous existence, one unencumbered by suffering.
This belief stems from the Daicans, ancient Greeks who once inhabited this part of Romania. A firm subscriber to the Daicans’ philosophy was Stan Ioan Pătraș, the artist and poet who sculpted and painted the cemetery’s first cross in 1935. By 1960, he’d made more than 800.
ON THE BACK ROADS
I’ve discarded my cape and rubber fangs and am on my way to the rural heart of Maramureș to visit the cemetery. In Maramureș there are no ancient citadels or vampire enthusiasts in sight – just elaborately carved wooden gates and churches.
Haystacks shaped like Marge Simpson’s hair adorn the hillsides, and villagers trot along country lanes on rickety horse-drawn carts. The farmers are carrying scythes, but they are no grim reapers. They flash toothless smiles as they toil in their fields.
It’s summer and the country is in the middle of a heatwave. For the past week, clouds have been scarce but today the skies are dark and rain tumbles. The thunder is so loud it’s making the ground vibrate.
I’m roughly 150km from Săpânţa, hunched against a ramshackle roadside hut. My poncho flaps in the wind and raindrops sneak down my neck. There’s only one bus into Maramureș a day and I’ve missed it, so I’m trying my luck at hitchhiking. Also hopeful of a lift is the nun beside me.
An open-shirted man stands ranting before us. He’s not interested in sheltering from the storm and is either smashed on ţuică, the local plum brandy, or is a plum or two short of a fully laden tree. I tell him, in Romanian, that I can only understand English. He starts counting to 10 in German.
After an hour of rant and rain, a car finally stops. The driver, a shirtless young man with a crucifix earring, winds down the window and says something to me in Romanian. The nun answers on my behalf and gets into the car. I do likewise, not sure exactly where she’s going but glad to be out of the rain and on my way at last.
As we pull away, I notice that the driver has a baby Jesus screensaver on his mobile phone. And I soon realise that we’re going to need divine protection: he speeds like a rally driver, swerving abruptly to avoid crater-like potholes and large cracks in the road.
Gypsies by the roadside are sheltering in a plastic metropolis of makeshift tents. Children with grubby faces play in the mud while their parents try to sell clothes to anyone who passes by. The road gets steeper and hills roll to the horizon as we cross the district line from Bucovina into Maramureș. We speed past a hilltop monastery and descend into a valley.
The nun gets out in a town called Borșa. In Romania, it is customary to pay a driver who picks you up when you’re hitch-hiking. The amount is usually the equivalent bus fare, calculated on the basis of the distance you’ve travelled.
The young man’s behaviour dramatically changes once the nun has gone. He cranks up the stereo, lights cigarette after cigarette and honks his horn at passing women, although still crosses himself whenever we pass a church. Wizened women spin wool by the roadside and the smell of manure permeates the air. Our car seems to be moving faster than time does around here.
Standing at the gates of the Merry Cemetery is a surreal experience. Graveyards usually have a forbidding air about them, but I cannot help feeling uplifted as I stroll around this one.
One cross shows a man being run over by a car. The scene verges on the comical. The man is the size of Godzilla and dwarfs the vehicle. He has a broad smile on his face and one leg kicks into the air as if he is doing the can-can. I can almost hear the Grim Reaper whistling.
SONGS FROM THE OTHER SIDE
Irish composer Shaun Davey is a man who likes to mix music and death. When a member of the Romanian Embassy in Dublin handed him a book containing photographs of the Merry Cemetery, Davey was inspired to write 12 compositions based on selected poems from the cemetery’s crosses, including that of founder Stan Ioan Pătraș. Tonight, in an adjoining paddock, Davey is in town to perform Voices from the Merry Cemetery with members of a local student choir and philharmonic musicians from nearby Sibiu.
Television cameras point towards a roughly hewn wooden stage set against a backdrop of rolling hills. An audience of roughly 200 sits on the grass eating hot dogs and drinking ţuică.
Cellos and violins murmur into life and thunder rumbles. Sudden blanket lightning strobes across the sky, highlighting the ominous outlines of the clouds. Drums bellow, cymbals crash; sheet music spirals into the air as the wind picks up. The choir erupts, singing about a man who drank too much ţuică; a young man who died in action during World War II; a young boy who mysteriously drowned while collecting spring water; and a dead woman who wills her widower to keep living, reassuring him that they will have plenty of time to rot together once he eventually dies.
The storm intensifies and I look skyward. I ponder the poem that may be etched onto my cross. He died by the zap of a lightning fork, limbs flailing in a dance of death. Yet, if lightning were to strike me down at this very moment, I would happily join the ranks of the departed at the Merry Cemetery, sure in the knowledge that my charred remains would smoulder in peace.