The Merry Cemetery of Sarpanta, where death does not deprive you of the dignity of ordinary life, a first-rate portrait and complaints about your mother-in-law

I don’t like to talk about it, but there was a dark time in my life.  I mean, I’m not ashamed exactly–it’s not like I was beating puppies or something.  The truth is, I was portrait painter.  An earnest, hard-working, spectacularly unsuccessful portrait painter.  No need to cue what my grandma called “the world’s smallest violin playing the world’s saddest song”.  I’m just telling you this so you realize that I qualify as an authority on portraiture.  I know how challenging it is to strike the right tone, to represent the complexity of a human life in a single image.  Creating a portrait these days is like sitting down with 10,000 years of art history, a high school yearbook and a selfie-stick.

Stan Ion Patras, creator of The Merry Cemetary of Sapanta, in Maramureș Romania, was one hell of a portrait artist.  Mr. Patras carved and painted a cemetery full of wooden tribute crosses beginning in 1935 until his death in 1977.  Since 1977, Stan Ion Patras’ awesomely-named apprentice, Dumitru Pop Tincu, has continued to produce portrait crosses in a similar style.

Can a cemetery be a work of art?  The Merry Cemetary certainly is.  Not only is each individual cross a unique, well-crafted artwork, but the cemetery stands together as a whole, like an exceedingly clever art installation.  Ironically (it been a field  of dead people and all) the cemetery is warm and accessible and refreshingly free of cliques and sentimentality.


The grave of Stan Ion Patras, artist of The Merry Cemetery.


Each cross has a poem carved beneath the portrait. One of our guest houses had a book with translations from many of the graves.  The poem-epithets are quite remarkable and often funny, like this inscription on the cross above.

(Thank you Wikipedia for the translation from Romanian)

Under this heavy cross
Lies my poor mother in-law
Three more days she would have lived
I would lie, and she would read (this cross).
You, who here are passing by
Not to wake her up please try
Cause’ if she comes back home
She’ll criticize me more.
But I will surely behave
So she’ll not return from grave.
Stay here, my dear mother in-law!


A couple we saw in the nearby town of Hoteni wearing outfits reminiscent of the son and his nagging mother-in-law.



We tried to find the crosses that would best represent our occupations.  I chose seamstress…..


…..and HOB chose TV repairman.


Some of the graves illustrate how the person died.


Apparently this woman was run over by a red car.


Notice the embedded photo of the weaver above the carved portrait.


Weaver we met in Maramureș.


I’m with the band.




Performers at the Hoteni Festival.


Scowling bartender.


Bodhar was a pharmacist.


Strippers grave?


My turn!  My turn!


Yo, pass the bottle.


Rug salesman?


This bike rider died in 1949.


Straw hats off to you, Stan Ion Patras.  You’ve transformed a graveyard into a conceptual art installation about what it means to be a human, about the humor and dignity of an ordinary life.   I definitely couldn’t have done it better myself.


How we got to The Merry Cemetary: Florin from Casa Muntean drove us.

Where we slept: Casa Muntean.  Price: €18 for a double.  Recommended: highly.







  1. I cannot get over how awesome this is. My one complaint is that I wouldn’t want to have my occupation painted on my tombstone, but that’s only because being an accountant is extremely boring. I’d rather have a party portrait, like the nearly-naked angel.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Well I know some pretty sexy accountants 😉 …..


  2. This is stunning! What a way to go!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I always wanted to be cremated, but The Merry Cemetery would be my next favorite way to go.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I think in general the total giving gravestone dark and sad feeling, people will not go to see more and stay, but here the color painted flower stone tombstone, it makes me want to read the story of their lives, amazing!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s so true! I only wish I could read Romanian.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I love this!! So uplifting and lively than when I see gravestones with photos.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Lively is just the word, princessarchitect.


  5. That’s the rare case when I am rendered speechless, and still want to say something. This art tells the living more about death than all the dead animals of Damien Hirst put together.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I understand that this sort of work is supposed to be called “folk art” but I can’t bear to use that term–it’s so patronizing and inadequate.


  6. Wow! Super cool. What a unique place. Cemeteries can be really interesting to explore, but I’ve never seen one like this. How colorful and full of life. It’s nice his apprentice is continuing.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You can tell the difference between the apprentice’s work and the master, but it’s still really well done.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Again, these works of art withstand the test of the elements! How that happens will never cease to amaze me! To me, this brings to mind the Fayum mummy portraits from the Coptic period that are found throughout Ancient Egypt. Essentially, these were painted portraits on wooden boards that were attached to the mummies. Slightly different from the crosses you discuss in your post, but an interesting connection all the same! Thanks for the post!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh I just love those en caustic mummy portraits! We have some here in Chicago at the Oriental Institute and I marvel at them.


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