In May I was lucky enough to be taken on a trip to Transylvania in Romania by my partner Gavin. The main reason for me visiting was to see the land that bore the Medieval prince who inspired my favourite story ‘Dracula’ and to experience the place that is heavily associated with the vampire myth that I am so taken with.
Our trip was organised by the company Secret Transylvania (www.secrettransylvania.co.uk) who are based in Sibiu and who put on many excursions within their holiday packages that will suit all tastes; whether you’re a bit of a Goth like me or you just want to experience a different holiday, I can’t recommend this company enough. It was the best holiday I have ever been on and the English owners (Bob and Sue who run the main B&B, and Di and Jez who started the company) couldn’t do enough for us. On our arrival we were collected from the airport by Bob and taken to the hotel based in the traditional Saxon Village of Cisnadioara. As we drove into the village I noticed a nearby cemetery. “What cemetery is that?!” I piped up, “That’s the main cemetery in Sibiu” replies Bob. “Sue knows more about it than me so you can ask her to show you around”. A date was set before we were taken to the airport on our last day to pay the site a few hours visit.
A stone’s throw from the Astra National Museum, you can enter via the war veterans cemetery Cimitirul Eroilor si Veteranilor de Razboi din Sibiu (Heroes and War Veterans Cemetery in Sibiu). Sue was a great guide and took the time to explain Romanian funeral traditions and the different types of burials.
When you hear the words ‘Transylvania’ and ‘cemetery’ one would automatically think of a bleak and eerie place with crumbling buildings and dark cloaked figures. This couldn’t be further from the truth. The cemetery is filled with dappled light from the trees surrounding it and colourful wild flowers adorn the paths.
The Cimitirul Municipal (Central Cemetery) is the largest in the country and some graves date back to the 19th Century. The 85,000 graves are split into different zoned areas based on the deceased’s religious affiliation, e.g. Evangelical, Greek Catholic, Roman Catholic, Reformed Christian, Jewish and Roman Orthodox, etc. There are also many Saxon graves that have their own section.
The war veterans’ zone is further split into three parts: Russian, Romanian & German. This cemetery contains the graves of 485 German and Romanian soldiers and 209 Soviet soldiers who fought in the Second World War. Amongst the soldiers’ graves are also the memorials to political prisoners executed by both the axis and allied troops. The Russian part of the war cemetery was heavily overgrown (as you can see in the photo), with low upkeep and maintenance due to the Romanian people’s history with the USSR (Germanic graves tended to be in better shape and maintained due historically to the high number of Saxons settling in the area. Indeed, Transylvania is littered with the remnants of fortified Saxon churches and many village houses are built in a Saxon style cluster with high surrounding walls and small windows in the basement to allow villages to be more easily defended). Sadly, it had also rained heavily for the previous 2 days so was extremely waterlogged and I was unable to have a closer look at this area of the cemetery. Having said that, a lot of the working cemetery was overgrown but we did see several people cutting away the long grass (with traditional scythes) that had grown due to the hot and wet summer.
I was taken aback by the array of different styles of graves in the cemetery. From the traditional headstone to stained glass fronted mausoleums to large family chest tombs. What struck me the most about the larger family stone tombs were the names of the wife, their birth date and then blank stone. It transpires that when the husband dies the wife’s name is automatically put on his headstone, awaiting her death. At first part of me was astonished with the assuming attitude of the woman will follow her dead husband – what if she got remarried? What if she didn’t want to be buried there? Don’t marriage vows state ‘till death do us part’? Thinking on it later this is just another example of Romania’s accepting attitude of mortality. They do not try to cover up death but face its reality head-on. And yes – some women do remarry and are not buried where originally intended!
In Romania, mourning has a special place and the subject of death is very much out in the open. In smaller villages the bells of the church will ring out when someone in the village has died. We heard the bells ring in the church next to where we stayed twice during the week stay. The deceased’s body will be laid out in the church or home where prayers will be said, blessings given and hymns sung. The dead are always buried within 3 days of death. The Eastern Orthodox religion (roughly 80% of the Romanian population) states that there is a 40 day mourning period and that there are 3 stages of death: on the third day the soul leaves the body and can therefore be buried, on the ninth day the spirit leaves the body and on the fortieth day the body ceases to exist as the soul receives its final judgement and passes onto the afterlife. Interestingly, the body is always transported feet first to prevent the soul from ever finding its way back, with the body referred to as the pure and white traveller due to the journey to a superior afterlife.
Romanians see death not as a sad event, but as a celebration of a life that has ended (in fact, too much mourning at the death of a child is thought to put its soul at jeopardy from entering the afterlife) and funeral processions would have almost been a carnivalesque type celebration to the grave (much the same as can be seen in places like New Orleans for example). In many of the vestibule mausoleums that line the paths, glass doors show the insides of the tomb filled with photos and possessions of the deceased as well as the coffin or urn (quite rare as the Eastern Orthodox religion prohibits the cremation of bodies) on show. Also found inside are chairs and stools for family members when they visit the grave. Many make it a family occasion and bring a picnic! Social relations between the dead and the living are maintained and memorials are held at 3 months, 6 months, 9 months, one year and on the anniversary of the death for up to 7 years.
Overall Cimitirul Municipal was a beautiful place to spend our last afternoon in beautiful Transylvania and you could spend several hours there investigating all the different graves. Outside the main entrance there was a market that sold traditional wreaths of artificial and real flowers decorated with ribbons as well as red lanterns with candles…and not a stake in sight.
by Amy Peters