"Tuica is pure venom. She brings tears and torment. And tuica brought this to me too. Death put me under her foot," Rada Pavel, my guide, looks up to make sure I'm listening and grasping the gist of the translation before continuing. "He who likes tuica a lot. Will have at the end my lot. As I have loved tuica a lot. And with it in hand I died. Here rests Dumitru Holdis. Lived 45 years. Sudden death in 1958."
The illustration on the wooden cross humorously depicts the epitaph Rada has just recited. A cartoon-like Dumitru Holdis is pictured holding a bottle of tuica (traditional Romanian plum-based spirit), and judging by what I've just learnt, it appears tuica was the cause of his demise.
Merry Cemetery, or Cimitirul Vesel as it's known in Romania, is in the village of Sapanta in the heart of Maramures County – a beautiful rugged region in northern Romania. The cemetery is a peaceful place where locals come to reminisce about their deceased loved ones, while tourists come to learn about the fate of those buried here.
The grave markers are the main attraction – wooden crosses painted an intense blue (called Sapanta blue) featuring bright-coloured illustrations and satirical verses about the deceased person's life – or the way in which they left it. There are pictures of people working on the farm, sitting at the kitchen table, picking fruit, sweeping the lawn, drinking tuica, and even a grave marker displaying a decapitation. "That's a short poem," Rada says. "But I think you can work out what happened to him."
There are close to 1000 painted crosses today and we take our time wandering around the cemetery. Sometimes Rada translates the verses, other times she leaves me to my own devices.
"Here's another one I want to translate for you," Rada says calling me over. "Ready? Under this heavy cross lies my poor mother in-law. If she had lived three more days I would be the one in the grave. And she would be reading my gravestone. You, who are passing by, please do not wake her. Because if she were to come back she would nag me until I die."
I try hard not to giggle… but some of the markers – like this one – are downright funny. "It's OK to laugh, they are meant to be humorous," Rada says. "Many of the locals believe that death is not the end, but in fact it is the beginning."
The founder of the unusual works of artistry is Stan Ioan Patras, a local artist-poet who produced the first epitaph in the 1930s. It's alleged he used to roam the streets of Sapanta, forever taking notes about goings-on. Drunks, cheaters, thieves… it was hard to hide from Patras. When residents passed away he would craft a headstone that captured their essence.
Rada explains that Patras went on to make more than 700 of these Romanian folk masterpieces before he died in 1977. His grave marker features a poem that describes his love of people and his desire for them to visit him, even after his death – which he has evidently achieved.
Today Patras' pupil, Dumitru Pop Tincu, continues the imaginative work (along with a few other local craftsmen). And like Patras, Pop Tincu hand sculpts the crosses out of local oak and then carves out the illustrations and words using a chisel.
And as tradition states, the families of those who have passed on do not have the final say in how the headstone will look. "It is up to the artist how they portray the deceased," explains Rada. "It's Sapanta's custom."
Fly to Bucharest via London with Qantas from Sydney or Melbourne. See qantas.com.au. To get to Maramures from Bucharest it's easiest to hire a car or catch the train. If coming from Hungary, Budapest to Baia Mare (the largest city in Maramures) is most convenient by minivan. See www.janositrans.ro.
For customised tours book with Rada Pavel. Rada spent eight years working for the Maramures Tourist Information office and is now a freelance guide. See www.prorada.wordpress.com.
The Village Hotel in the town of Breb in Maramures is an enchanting place to stay. There are double rooms in the main house, but the large private cabins, furnished to look like traditional Romanian homes, are pretty special. The owner is a former UK paparazzo and his photography tours are good fun. See villagehotelmaramures.com.
The writer was a guest of Romania Tourism.