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Laughing at Death: Europe's Happiest ...
Sapanta
By danubestory
04 Dec 2014

While the lives of Sapanta residents is marked by the rhythm of horse-drawn ploughs, of looms spinning wool into rough blankets and cloth for clothes, and the distilling of 'tuica' (TSUI-ka), a potent local fruit liquor; their deaths are marked with color and humor.

In this northern Romanian village, the “Merry Cemetery” brings smiles or cheeky grins to the faces of visitors and locals there to pay their respects to the dead. Colorfully painted, handed-crafted oak tombstones tell the stories of the lives and deaths of the deceased in a humorous, brutally honest tone. The “Merry Cemetery” in Sapanta is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and draws thousands of tourists every year.

The tradition started when a local woodworker named Stan Ioan Patras carved and painted the first tombstone in 1935, gracing it with a lighthearted epitaph that he came up with to commemorate the death of a neighbor. After his death in 1977, woodworker, painter, poet and farmer Dumitru Pop took residence in his workshop and kept the tradition alive. When a member of the community dies, he goes to work coming up with an (often hilarious) epitaph that best represents the deceased, carving a playful scene and painting the tombstone in bright blues, reds, greens and earthtones. Mr. Pop’s background in classical and contemporary Romanian literature gives his epitaphs a resonance that goes deep into the village’s collective memory.

Some ethnologists studying the cemetery believe that the lighthearted and humorous attitude towards death in this region may be a remnant of Dacian culture. Early inhabitants of Romania, the Dacians greeted death with open arms because it meant meeting the greatest of their gods, Zalmoxis. As in many cultures, certain attitudes and practices were easily integrated into monotheistic worldviews that came later, in this case Orthodox Christianity. According to a local Orthodox priest, people in the region do not necessarily see death as if it were a tragedy, but rather as a passage to another life.

The practice even survived Romania’s communist era despite Soviet communism’s largely atheistic and secular worldview. A grave marker commemorating Ioan Holdis, a local Communist official reads:

“As long as I lived, I loved the Party And all my life I tried to help the people.”

However, the best loved epitaphs are the funniest, the ones that make mourning and remembering the dead a hilarious affair:

“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!”

Shot list and Subtitles

(00:05 – 00:11) W/S In a small village in Romania, a cemetery makes people smile. (00:12 -00:17) D/M Cheerful, colourful tombstones tell the stories of people who lived in the village of Sapanta in country’s north. (00:18 – 00:23) D/S The unconventional way of commemorating the deceased cheerfully and honestly shows death as an inevitability. (00:24 – 00:29) D/S Gravestones here tell of the persons virtues but tell the truth about their vices. (00:30 – 00:35) W/S The “Merry Cemetery” was declared as a UNESCO site, (00:36 – 00:41) W/S one of the reasons Sapanta is among the most visited Romanian villages. (00:42 – 00:47) W/S A church in the middle of the cemetery solemnly venerates the saints (00:48 – 00:53) D/S But common mortals may be humorous. (00:54 – 00:59) M/M Thanks to vibrant illustrations, visitors understand the stories of people from the village even if they don’t read Romanian. (01:00 – 01:05) M/S “Here lies the good tractor operator.” (01:06 – 01:11) D/S “Here the hardworking farmer rests in peace.” (01:12 – 01:17) M/M This person died in a car accident. (01:18 – 01:23) D/S “Father and son.” (01:24 – 01:29) D/S “A man drowned in the river.” (01:30 – 01:35) M/S The first painted wooden cross was made here in 1935. (01:36 – 01:41) M/M This humorous way of commemorating the dead was the idea of local woodworker Stan Ioan Patras. (01:42 – 01:47) W/M He lived and worked on his carvings in this house near the cemetery. (01:48 – 01:53) M/S He even carved naive portraits of Romanian communist dictator Ceausescu and his government (01:54 – 01:59) M/S and of notable townsmen. (02:00 – 02:05) W/M The workshop has bustled with activity and honest humor ever since. After Patras’ death in 1977, Dumitru Pop took over the workshop. (02:06 – 02:11) W/S Locals believe that humorous verses are the best way to remember their loved ones. (02:18 – 02:23) But they are not allowed to tell Dumitru what shall he write. (02:24 – 02:29) D/S Each wooden is crafted precisely by hand.. (02:30 – 02:35) D/S They are all made from local oak (02:36 – 02:41) M/S and painted with vivid colours. The main color is blue, the color of heaven, where the living strive to end up. (02:42 – 02:47) M/S Dumitru says that the epitaphs are all true stories. (02:48 – 02:53) D/S Perhaps death is easier, knowing that his learned hands will make a cheerful tombstone in ones commemoration. (02:54 – 02:59) D/S “Busy housewives but also mischiefs are waiting for them.” (03:00 – 03:05) D/S On the tombstone of a distiller the epitaph reads: “Everybody in Sapanta loved me, as I produced elixir of life.

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Ukraine: A Ritual Bath in the Frigid ...
Izmail, Ukraine
By danubestory
19 Jan 2014

On the 19th of January, Ukrainian Orthodox Christians observe a special tradition aimed at washing away all their sins and securing good health. One by one they enter the frigid water of a river or lake and submerge themselves three times. In the town of Izmail, this ritual is performed on the banks of the river Danube. In the past, only men bathed in the icy river. Now, ladies also plunge into the cold of the river. On the beach it seems like a hot summer day: ladies in bikinis gather and laugh. However, people well dressed in winter coats remind one of the cold January weather.

Christening, called “Krescenie“ in Ukrainian, is not just about bathing. People meet on the banks of the river and have barbecues, grilling meat, drinking and socializing. Musicians are always nearby. With mulled wine and vodka, the faithful soon forget the cold weather.

Andrey Stefoglo, resident of Izmail, was born with his left hand deformed. Nonetheless, he found work as a hotel manager on a German cruise ship. He is among the luckier of Izmail’s people: he has a good job. The region is poor, being nearly forgotten after the collapse of Soviet Union. People here usually speak Russian. The area was once called Besarabia, and over time, belonged to the Ottoman Empire, Romania and Russia. Here, people of forty ethnic groups and nationalities coexist without any problems.

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Ras al-Ayn, Syria
By Annabell Van den Berghe
03 Jun 2013

"I had no chance to take something along when we had to leave. And when I came back, everything of value was gone. Except our statue of Mary, thank God." Basma points to the statue on the shelf and makes a cross. In an attempt to suppress her tears Basma turns angry. "I still do not know if I am safe here. While cleaing the house upon our return, I found an unexploded bomb next to the statue of Mary. They are making fun of us, but this is dangerous.

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The Pilgrimage (6 of 29)
Lalibela, Ethiopia
By Leyland Cecco
29 Dec 2012

Narrow tunnels underneath the churches and within the mountain connect the churches, and as the number of pilgrims swell dramatically with Christmas approaching, the passages become an increasingly tight traverse. Stories of long treks echo off the cool stone, with one pilgrim sharing a story of his group's barefoot journey of more than 8 days in order to reach Lalibela. As so many villages are within reach, more than 60,000 pilgrims descend on the churches each Christmas. Bet Giyorgis is one of the most important pilgrimage sites for one of the oldest Christian sects in the world, the Ethiopian Orthodox Christians. Lalibela, Ethiopia. December 2012.

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The Pilgrimage (5 of 29)
Lalibela, Ethiopia
By Leyland Cecco
29 Dec 2012

Serenity and fulfillment consummate one's spiritual journey. For the pilgrims transfixed in prayer, the experience has been a voyage both into the depths of the earth as well as the depths of their own faith. Perched high in the mountains of Northern Ethiopia, in the small town of Lalibela, Bet Giyorgis is one of the most important pilgrimage sites for one of the oldest Christian sects in the world, the Ethiopian Orthodox Christians. Lalibela, Ethiopia. December 2012.

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The Pilgrimage (4 of 29)
Lalibela, Ethiopia
By Leyland Cecco
29 Dec 2012

Resting against the rock face of the church, an Orthodox Christian is caught in a moment of contemplation. Each of the underground churches contain a thick and richly colored curtain hiding a replica of the Ark of the Covenant, viewed only by priests, deacons and bishops. Perched high in the mountains of Northern Ethiopia, in the small town of Lalibela, Bet Giyorgis is one of the most important pilgrimage sites for one of the oldest Christian sects in the world, the Ethiopian Orthodox Christians. Lalibela, Ethiopia. December 2012.

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The Pilgrimage
Lalibela, Ethiopia
By U.S. Editor
29 Dec 2012

Perched high in the mountains of Northern Ethiopia, in the small town of Lalibela, Bet Giyorgis is one of the most important pilgrimage sites for one of the oldest Christian sects in the world, the Ethiopian Orthodox Christians. Wrapped in shrouds of early morning mist and cotton, Ethiopian Orthodox Christians stand in prayer at the edge of the rock church carved to resemble, what some believe is, Jerusalem. Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity is one of the only indigenous, pre-colonial Christian churches in Sub-Saharan Africa and still maintains its ancient rituals.

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Christians in Palestine
Bayt Jala, Palestine
By Firas S Mukarker
13 Sep 2012

St. Nicolas Greek Orthodox Church, Beit Jala is a half Christian, half Muslim Village, near Bethlehem, a peaceful place on a high mountain; it has several churches such as this one.

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Palestinian Orthodox men carrying a c...
Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Palestine
By ST McNeil
22 Apr 2011

Palestinian Orthodox carry a crucifix past The Stone of Anointing to the Rotunda in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the location of Jesus' death according to Christian tradition.