The photos above are of epithets I found in some cemeteries in a small Gulf coast town. It is common to see “in loving memory,” while “forever in our hearts” and “our beloved papa” are a little more unusual. But I have never seen “the sweetest man in town” before. “Closed forever” was also unusual. They all express the sentiments we think are normal for the family of the departed to put on the tomb.
While driving around Romania twenty years ago with some friends from Bucharest, there were two cemeteries that caught my attention. The first was a heavily wooded cemetery in a small town. There had just been a funeral, and a man in his eighties was ringing the bell. Many families were sitting on blankets throughout the cemetery enjoying small pastries and tuica, a plum brandy.
The second was one our friends took us to. It is famous for the carved oak crosses which are painted vibrant blues and other bright colors. There are scenes from the life of the departed person, and poetry that describes their life and/or death. What is unusual is that many of the scenes and poems are not the normal idealized things people say about the dead, where their imperfections and trespasses are forgiven and forgotten. Instead, the town drunk and the man that liked to sit in the bar next to other men’s wives are portrayed as such.
The man who started carving the crosses, and continued for many decades, did research on his subjects. He would walk around town on Sundays listening in on the town gossip and kept notes. In addition, he paid attention when friends and relatives gathered at the wake to share jokes and poetic tributes. And of course a small town is a small town; not many secrets are kept. Some people even went to him with updates of their lives after something happened that they felt was important to record for their future epithet.
The people of the town see death as a passage to a hopefully better life. The families want the true life of the departed to be depicted, and appreciated the skill of the sculptor/poet.
Such visits always provoke thoughts of how short life is. It was reinforced today by a friend who observed that at our age time is worth more than gold, because it begins to get real scarce. The Romanian cemetery is different because it includes humor and honesty in an uncommon way. We could all use more of both in life as well.