Sapanta's "Merry Cemetery"
Location of "Merry Cemetery" ...
The Merry Cemetery ... Lying on the banks of the Tisa, the river that forms the frontier with Ukraine, towered over by the Carpathian Mountains, Sapanta is a commune with five thousand inhabitants, not much different from others in Maramures, a province in northern Romania.
A God-forsaken region where access is difficult, Maramures has long been kept outside great transformations. This relative isolation helps us understand why even to this day the area's inhabitants have preserved an extraordinary bond to their land, an extreme spirit of independence, a pattern of life, and strictly observed traditions.
Several kids gracing a family is a token of good luck. Each member of the family has/his her own responsibilities: the woman to the domestic chores, the little children to the garden, the husband tends the animals and works in the forest, the boys guard animals, the girls help in the house and learn to weave, spin and embroider at their ma's knee. The inhabitants of Sapanta strictly obey the traditions of the Orthodox religion and are fervent believers. It is a duty, even an honor, to be part of the church committee.
On Sunday, everybody, young and old, dresses in the national costume and tries to forget old feuds. The Romanian peasant has never been afraid of death. For him the cross is a sort of gate to eternity and everlasting rest. Death is a natural phenomenon one must accept, but naturally, not seek.
Like in all Carpathian areas, the forest is one of the basic fields of economic activity at Sapanta. A symbol of durability and eternity, wood is omnipresent in the area. From time immemorial, the inhabitants of this region have used it wisely and turned it to account, into gems of rural architecture, adorned by a wide variety of geometric and floral motifs representations of the sun and the moon. The Merry Cemetery of Sapanta has been, for more than fifty years, the creation of sculptor Stan Patras, the successor of several generations of wood artists that bequeathed their trade from father to son.
In the beginning he sculpted about ten crosses a year. The method of work has been preserved unaltered to this day. The oak wood is cut into beams that are then allowed to dry one or two years. Next they are hewn into 10-cm thick planks, 2.20 m long and 30-40 cm wide, ranged in stacks, and allowed to dry for some months more. Then the sculptor begins his work: first he draws the geometrical motifs and the bas-relief dedicated to the deceased, then he sculpts and paints the cross in blue - a symbol of hope and freedom.
In 1934, Patras began to scribble an epitaph on the crosses. Usually it is a short poem written in the first person, dotted with archaisms, vernacular phrases and spelling errors. The sculptor-poet's source of inspiration is the two-three night wakes. The relatives of the dead person do not mourn, but drink and make merry. The entire life of the village is featured in this cemetery. The shepherd, the farmer, the wood ranger, the wood cutter, or the pupil stand side by eternally, with the weaver, the spinner, the housewife, the merchant, the carpenter, the doctor, the musician or the drunk. This collective memory of Sapanta, this ensemble of colorful graves where each dead person recounts humbly his/her existence with its joys and sorrows, creates a serene and merry atmosphere, a sort of challenge to death, a hymn to life.
The creative spirit of Stan Ioan Patras still hovers over the merry cemetery of Sapanta even if today most of the crosses are concocted by his students. His continuator now is Dumitru Pop. Born into a poor family, he studied with Patras since he was nine, and during his holidays he sculpted miniature crosses and frescoes. He went then to a vocational school in Timisoara and returned to Sapanta in 1977, after the death of Stan Ion Patras. Ever since Dumitru Pop has been living and working in the shadow of his master, inhabiting the maestro's old home.
Even death after life does greatly please ... it is now sixty years since craftsman Stan Patras has been cutting crosses for the dead to chase away the dread of death. When one of his fellow villagers asked him why people order him so many crosses, he answered: "Maybe they want a keepsake of me that sees this side of death". And Stan Patras invented nothing; he just showed people what they could not see by themselves. And the "reminders" he has left at Sapanta are superb indeed. The cemetery will bridge over all times as a museum of the triumph of life upon death, here in the north , in the Maramures land, an ancient area of wood civilization, a museum where people will talk about the "blue" of Sapanta as they talk about the already famous Voronet blue; a warm, smooth, almost phosphorescent blue. Asking the craftsman what inspired it, he replied plainly: the sky. "
Next to the other four colors to be seen everywhere - black, red, yellow and green - blue is the fifth color of the Maramuresh land.
The phrase "merry cemetery" may seem paradoxical if not even touching impiety. And yet, it stays true in all its simplicity and depth devised by Stan Patras. His crosses make up a whole world, a live chronicle of a community those succeds generations through times. The likeness of the deceased, carved and colored usually catches one of his lifetime's characteristic attitudes, surrounded by floral arabesques, above a funny, with epitaph. The verses are written in the first person, as if uttered by the deceased himself for him who may read it. The one who went the way of all flesh tells who he was. A true kaleidoscope of dances, crafts, songs, serious, thoughts, songs to Mother Nature - that is the meaning of these crosses that surround a small church.
A light haze hovers over the cemetery as if the clear sky had lowered itself among the crosses. It is the blue of Sapanta, same as that of the infinite sky, if not the true color of the Styx, which craftsman Patras knew to discover before meeting boatman Caron. There is something about it that the eye catches with delight, descending from archaic beliefs, from the art of the images that people the graves of a cemetery unique in the world.
The Maramuresh land is a country of wood civilization. Houses, furniture, porches, roofs, tools, churches, gates, everything here are made of wood. The wood is Alpha and Omega. People love it, carve it, and paint it, transferring into it a part of their existence, of their thoughts. The Maramuresh wooden churches, the high gates of carved wood like triumphal arches are now famous in world ethnography.
In the cemetery surrounding the church of Sapanta, the crosses are made of carved and painted wood. The graves are more like flower beds and the crosses themselves rise like big colored flowers. In summertime, this is a true pilgrimage spot. This place, that tourists from all parts of the world come to visit, is undoubtedly one of silent praying and mourning. Yet, here everything effuses exuberance, bright vitality. It is like an outburst of life covering those who crossed beyond.
In craftsman Patras's golden book, Swiss Honore Bayard writes: "Life is beautiful, very beautiful! But in this place, even death after life does greatly please, thanks to you, craftsman! Thank you for this moment of truth!” And fact is the work of Stan Patras actually is a moment of truth. A high roar of laugher of our Dacian ancestors, who had no fear of death, seems to have reverberated in this work.
Source: Merry Cemetery