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A look inside Romania's darkly humorous Merry Cemetery

SAPANTA, Romania (AP) — Death isn't always tragic, at least not in this Romanian cemetery, where the dead beguile visitors with tales of their lives.

The Merry Cemetery in the northwestern village of Sapanta is a collection of more than 1,000 elaborate wooden Orthodox crosses etched with colorful epitaphs and childlike drawings.

There are few secrets in this small community and whatever flaws someone had when they were alive are turned into "grave art" when they die.

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Romania Merry Cemetery

A man stands between the painted crosses in the Merry Cemetery, in Sapanta, northwestern Romania, Sunday, Sept. 10, 2017. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)

This darkly humorous and matter-of-fact approach, rooted in the traditional peasant culture of the region, intrigues visitors.

Despite its remote location some 600 kilometers (360 miles) northwest of the Romanian capital, Bucharest, it's one of the country's top tourist attractions.

"I've seen what touches (tourists). This cemetery... is not just a cemetery. People realized that this indeed is a place where you can laugh at death itself," said sculptor Dumitru Pop Tincu, 62, who crafted many of the crosses. He spoke to The Associated Press in his workshop, dressed in a traditional costume of an embroidered smock, loose trousers and a straw hat.

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Romania Merry Cemetery

Sculptor Dumitru Pop Tincu, 62, poses for a photograph at his workshop in Sapanta, northwestern Romania, Sunday, Sept. 10, 2017. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)

One recent morning, German tourists were taking in the rows of intricately carved blue, yellow, green and red crosses, looking at the cartoon-like drawings and limericks written in a quirky language used by locals. Some consider the place less a graveyard and more an outdoor museum.

Romanian-born Gerhard Schuster, 63, who lives in Kempten, southern Germany, said: "Ever since I was a child I heard stories about this. My parents were talking about the Merry Cemetery and I've always wanted to come and see it but wasn't able to until now. "

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Romania Merry Cemetery

A woman removes her glasses while cleaning a grave in the Merry Cemetery, in Sapanta, northwestern Romania, Saturday, Sept. 9, 2017. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)

One of the drawings features a young man and a subway carriage — the man was run over by a train. His epitaph reads: "I enjoyed life so much, I went to western Europe; may it be cursed along with the Paris metro. I used to be a gambler, and I died in 2001 when I was 16 years old."

Some of the crosses resemble modern-day morality tales.

One epitaph for a truck driver warns the living about the perils of working too hard. "I used to work to be wealthy and I had to leave everything behind. I wish people would stop and read this on my cross," it reads. "Here's what happened: the truck rolled over and the dirt smothered me. I died in Barcelona in 2002 when I was 42 years old."

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Romania Merry Cemetery

A man cries at a relative's grave standing between the painted crosses in the Merry Cemetery, in Sapanta, northwestern Romania, Sunday, Sept. 10, 2017. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)

In 1935, local wood sculptor Stan Ioan Patras came up with the idea of engraving epitaphs and simple drawings onto crosses, and went on to craft a total of 700 crosses until his death in 1977. His grave says he was the creator of the Merry Cemetery.

Crosses costs between 2,000 and 5,000 lei ($520 to $1,300) and it can take weeks to create one.

While some crosses are amusing, others are simply sad.

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Romania Merry Cemetery

The story of a child who was run over by a car is depicted on her cross, center right, in the Merry Cemetery, in Sapanta, northwestern Romania, Monday, Sept. 11, 2017. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)

One shows a three-year-old being run over by a car, and another tells the story of a 38-year-old man who had a "merciless death" that snatched him from his wife and two daughters.

Tincu mused about the philosophy behind the cemetery.

"These texts and images contain elements that remind you of what life is about," he said.

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Alison Mutler in Bucharest, Romania contributed to this report.