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Tuesday, 30 April, 2002, 13:51 GMT 14:51 UK
Village gives death bright makeover
Gravestone painter
Old crosses need repainting about every 10 years
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By Silvia Radan and Alina Hutt
Sapinta, Romania
line

Near a remote Romanian village church, Dumitru Pop Tincu is busy carving crosses for foreign customers.

"I've just sent one written in Latin to an Italian, who wanted to put it in his garden," he says.

Gravestone of shepherd killed by Hungarian
The occupant of this grave is not resting in peace
He regularly gets orders from people in France, America or Canada. International orders for the crosses are something new, which came with the development of rural tourism in Romania.

Most people, though, travel all the way to Sapinta - a small village near the border with Ukraine - just to see the crosses in the Merry Cemetery.

The 600 wooden crosses surrounding the Sapinta church are an explosion of bright colours. They all have a blue background, which symbolises the sky to which the soul rises after death. Most are painted with the portrait of the deceased and text on both sides.

The inscriptions are in the form of epitaphs, written in the first-person and are often ironical or humorous when depicting the vices and weaknesses of the buried.

'Bad Hungarian'

One of the most unusual examples is a before-and-after memorial for a shepherd who was murdered by a Hungarian. One carving shows the victim with a gun to his head, and in the second the Hungarian holds up his severed head. The inscription reads:

"Rest in peace - but I do not
Saulic Ion lies in this plot
In the grounds of Belmezau
I a shepherd was, you know
A bad Hungarian had come
And shot my head through with his gun
He hacked my body clean asunder
Thus I was buried six feet under."

Others are very sincere or, in the case of children, quite heart-breaking and full of wrath:

"Burn in hell the taxi cab
That came from Sibiu town
Of all the places in the world
It had to hurtle down
Right by our house, and hit me so
That I was sent to death below
And left my parents full of woe."


The cheerful colours and words made the passing away of someone dear less sad

The painted portrait (customarily there is a photograph on Romanian grave stones) shows a scene from the daily life of the departed.

There are women weaving or cooking, men scything, chopping wood or drinking. By giving life through colour and telling a story through epitaphs, the Merry Cemetery's graves are a village album, showing life as it was and still is, rather than just death statistics. It is considered unique in the world.

Listed site

Dating from 1935, the cemetery was ignored by the Romanian communist regime.

In the 1950s it was "discovered" by a group of French travellers passing through Sapinta. Impressed by the lively colours and funny words, the French named it the Merry Cemetery.

Soon after it was listed as a heritage site by the UN cultural organisation Unesco. When Romania opened its borders after the fall of communism it became one of the most visited graveyards in Europe.

Cemetery cross
Blue symbolises the sky to which the soul rises after death
The cemetery was the creation of Ion Stan Patras. He was a simple man who learned his trade through hardship. His father died when Ion was still a child and his mother fell ill, so he only went to school for two years.

In his teens he started carving wood crosses. Although they looked far from traditional, they were successful. The cheerful colours and words made the passing away of someone dear less sad. In 1971, as a result of the French publicity, he was invited to show his work in a Paris exhibition.

It brought him a top prize and a big sum of money. Back home, the communist government confiscated the money. Patras asked, though, for an asphalt road to be built between his house and the village centre. The authorities agreed.

Painter

This road still exists today, leading tourists to Patras Memorial House and the workshop where his followers now work. Since 1977 Ion Stan Patras has been resting under his own blue cross, for which he wrote his own text.

Cross
The cemetery is a big attraction for foreign visitors
One of the people now working at the cemetery is Grigore Pop. Since he was eight years old, Grigore has loved wandering through the cemetery, guiding tourists to the most interesting graves.

He also loved drawing and studied at art school. He eventually became the painter of the Merry Cemetery crosses.

He spends much of his time refreshing the colours of old crosses, which fade after about 10 years. "I give blue special care because is the most important colour. It represents the sky, where we'll all end up one day," he said.

Back in the workshop, Dumitru Pop Tincu is carving a new cross. He says it takes about a week to make a cross.

"It is made from oak and if the wood is well chosen it can last between 80 and 100 years," he reveals. A fully decorated cross could be up to 12 million lei ($365), which is a considerable sum in Romania.

As buses pour in with tourists, Tincu says he gets as many orders from foreigners as from locals. Apart from making decorative crosses for tourists and reconstituting the old ones, he also has to make new crosses - funerals still take place in the Merry Cemetery.

See also:

08 Mar 02 | Country profiles
Country profile: Romania
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