Hitchhiking to the Happy Cemetery

Zur deutschen Fassung.

I like going to cemeteries. Often, they are quieter and more pleasant than the local park. Some are of artistic value. And then, I learn a bit about the local culture and history.

In Romania, I was recommended a cemetery that is even supposed to be amusing: the merry cemetery of Săpânța.

It is only 20 km from Sighet. That should be manageable by hitchhiking. But at the turnoff to Satu Mare, I stand for 25 minutes just as unsuccessfully as the Jehovah’s Witnesses on the opposite side of the road.

Depressing. As if made for a day at the cemetery. But I don’t want to give up. Not yet. Instead, I walk a few hundred meters further out of town, until after the hospital, and try again. Here, already the third car stops.

The driver is from Slovakia, but lives in Maramureș. Or he is from here, but ethnically Slovak. I didn’t understand that exactly. But then, I don’t think it really matters around here either, because people still think in terms of Habsburg regions like Ruthenia or Volhynia or Galicia. All these nation states that were created after the First World War, that’s a rather newfangled thing.

The excessively large and excessively out-of-place concrete church in Sarasău is also rather newfangled.

But the stork nests on every second or third power pole preserve the village character along the road. Three or four storks are frolicking in each nest. The birds may be endangered elsewhere, but not here. And the child-delivering birds are quite fitting indeed for a country where abortion and contraception were banned until 1989, and where childless people had to pay an annual penalty tax amounting to something like a month’s income.

Remember the photos of the overcrowded orphanages that briefly opened the world’s charity checkbooks after the fall of anti-abortion activist Nicolae Ceaușescu? Well, now you know where all those children came from. But I guess we will soon see the results again of forcing women to give birth, in places like Poland and the United States.

As it happens, the friendly driver has to go to a hardware store in Săpânța, which is located just below the cemetery. This happens often with hitchhiking: First you think that no one is stopping at all. Then a driver comes along and takes you to your destination with pinpoint accuracy. I think this is the first cemetery for which I have to pass souvenir stands and snack bars and pay a small entrance fee of 5 lei (= 1 euro).

This cemetery is so famous because every deceased person receives a wooden plaque with a personal image and a poem about his/her life, most of them allegedly amusing.

Now I regret that I don’t understand Romanian. For a while, I can listen to a Romanian visitor translating to his Spanish wife, but after a while, it’s getting too obvious that I am always staying close to them.

Thus, like the illiterate worshipers of former times before the frescoes of the Moldavian monasteries, I am dependent on the pictorial narrative. Many carvings seem to revolve around the profession of the protagonists. A doctor with an airplane signifies that he once brought the vaccine to the village. Hunters, woodcutters, and butchers are shown at work. However, I fail to understand why a hunter’s membership in the Communist Party is so prominently highlighted.

Several carvings refer to the manner of death. Some offer real criminal cases, from involuntary manslaughter in road traffic to vigilante justice by chopping off the head of a cattle thief caught in the act.

Now, I just hear that those among you who speak Romanian, will step forward to translate these limericks. Mulțumesc!

There is probably no other village in the world whose history is documented in such detail. A treasure trove for ethnologists and microhistorians.

The church, as you can see, is also quite cute. However, the artists who decorated its interior in a rather serious and conventional way receive only a fraction of the attention and recognition. Perhaps they should have let Stan Ioan Pătraș take care of the church, too.

What is unfortunately missing from all the professions depicted on the graves is an exterminator. Because exactly at noon, swarms of large insects are attacking the cemetery and indeed the whole village.

From this biblical plague – I think it is the third or the fourth one – I seek refuge in the nearby forest. If you ever come to this mysterious gate in that forest, I advise you to go walk through it and follow the path.

Because it will lead you to the tallest wooden tower in the world. The church tower stands 75 meters tall and is located in a clearing, which I guess is the result of cutting down enough timber for the construction of said tower. The newly built Peri-Peri monastery next to it clearly shows which institution in Romania does most certainly not suffer from any lack of money.

For the way back, I am standing by the main road again, and this time the second car stops. The driver is happy to take me to Sighet, but wants 10 lei for it. That’s 2 euros for 20 km, a moderate price. In Eastern Europe it is not unusual that private vehicles take gas money. The amount is usually the same as the price of a bus ticket for the same distance.

And when the woman in the back gets out halfway and also gives the driver some money, I realize that he does this for a living. With the 10 lei, he can only afford one liter of “petrol combustibil” anyway, he complains, pointing to the display of a gas station we just passed. He is right. And that despite Romania having its own oil fields, which were heavily fought over in World War II.

The only thing bothering me about this kind of not-quite-hitchhiking is the carbon footprint. Because the driver didn’t really have to go to Sighet. And at home, his Ukrainian wife is waiting. They run a guesthouse together. It remains unclear whether she is from Ukraine or whether she is an ethnic Ukrainian from Romania. But as pointed out above, it doesn’t really matter, because modern nation-states, which have only been around for 100 to 150 years, have by no means supplanted the cross-border Carpathian identity. But on this topic, I can conveniently refer to another article of mine.

As he drops me off in Sighet, I realize that I actually don’t get it why people put so much thought into a grave. Personally, it would be embarrassing for me to take myself or to be taken so important, whether carved, painted or by poem. No, I’d rather be buried in some hole where no one knows me.


About Andreas Moser

Travelling the world and writing about it. I have degrees in law and philosophy, but I'd much rather be a writer, a spy or a hobo.
This entry was posted in Photography, Romania, Travel and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Hitchhiking to the Happy Cemetery

  1. Mary Carney says:

    I love visiting cemeteries. It may be weird but they’re often beautiful and always interesting. I enjoy traveling vicariously through you, but I’m thrilled to say I’m about to embark on my first international trip since the pandemic. I’m not sure I’ll find a good cemetery, but I’m excited to see anything other than my house! :) Unfortunately, while grounded by COVID, I decided to give up early/semi-retirement and return to full-time work so I only have three weeks to sweep through Austria and Slovenia. But 3 weeks is a lot better than nothing. I can’t wait!!!

    • And in bustling places, the cemeteries are often a nice refuge, without too many (living) people, without any traffic, without much noise.

      I am so excited for your trip!
      Austria and Slovenia are both absolutely beautiful countries.

      As to cemeteries, if in Vienna, you could spend a whole day at the main cemetery “Zentralfriedhof”. Tram 71 takes you there, you can get a map at the main entrance (which is necessary). It’s an enormous cemetery, in parts like a forest (especially the old Jewish part), and with war graves, graves of famous musicians, an Armenian section, a Buddhist section, a Muslim section, et cetera. Also, I saw deer and foxes running through the cemetery.

      In Slovenia, I don’t remember anything about cemeteries, but I guess they might differ between the inland area (Ljubljana, Maribor and such) and the more Italian-flavored coastal area in towns like Piran.

      Enjoy your trip!

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