The United States and Western Europe have traditionally been pretty somber about death—all-black mourning attire, heavy gray tombstones, and a hushed, reverent tone when talking about the deceased. That’s not the case at the Cimitirul Vesel, or "Merry Cemetery,” located in the tiny town of Săpânţa, Romania. There, hundreds of colorful grave markers festooned with pictures and sometimes-bawdy limericks commemorate the lives of the local departed in all of their messy glory.
As Dylan Thuras of Atlas Obscura explains in the video above, the grave markers are the work of a local wood carver named Stan Ioan Pătraş, who began carving crosses for the cemetery when he was a teenager. Pătraş eventually created about 800 markers, and the cemetery (“discovered” by a French journalist in the 1970s) has become both a local landmark and kind of open-air folk art gallery.
The markers display a humor and honesty that can seem startling (or refreshing) to the American eye. They sometimes refer to unsavory or gruesome deaths: one, for a town drunk, shows a skeleton tugging the dead man down as he drinks from a bottle. Another shows the taxi that killed a three-year-old boy. Meanwhile, the limericks display a dark humor. One of the most famous concerns Pătraş’s mother-in-law: Underneath this heavy cross. Lies my mother-in-law poor ... Try not to wake her up. For if she comes back home. She’ll bite my head off. Another reads: Ioan Toaderu loved horses. One more thing he loved very much. To sit at a table in a bar. Next to someone else's wife.
As Pătraş saw it, his town was a place where people had no room to hide secrets from one another—so why pretend otherwise at the cemetery? He died in 1977 (after carving his own grave marker), but his work has been carried on by an apprentice. Today, his house and workshop has been turned into a small museum that you can visit. If you go—or even if you don’t—the cemetery is a great reminder that laughing is often one of the best ways to cope with the Grim Reaper.