Visiting mass cemeteries might not seem like a bundle of fun. But as a history student, until university level, it was a terribly moving experience. Often when we hear tragedies in the news, or read textbook accounts of them, we don’t really stop to think. When we hear about 420,000 casualties at the Battle of the Somme, or that around 80,000 Jews were killed at Auschwitz we never really stop to consider that that’s 80,000 individuals. That’s 80,000 ordinary people like me and you.
It is in this vein that grief tourism becomes important. It becomes impossible to ignore parts of our heritage and history where pain and horror became all too real. Although it’s never good to dwell on the macabre side of life for too long, by visiting places such as battlefields we are able to understand people’s experiences during those times more fully. When you first set eyes on the Thiepval Memorial carrying the names of 72,000 men without a grave, it gives you a true sense of the scale of sacrifice on the part of the Allies. It is my belief that visits like these give you more education than you can ever find in a schoolroom. When you stand where millions have been killed, you suddenly develop a different perspective on life.
Many different people may visit scenes of tragedy for many different reasons. Some may come to pay respects, or some may visit to come to terms with their grief. Therefore by visiting we help to preserve the memories of those who would otherwise be forgotten. On the other hand we may come for a journey of discovery, to learn something about ourselves, and to discover how precious life can be. Obviously there is a difference between visiting sites of historical value and recent sides such as Ground Zero. A more recent tragedy site may call for a respectful period of recovery, away from the eyes of the world at first. However, recent sites such as these form part of our history in the same way as the World Wars. So, with the right balance of sympathy and with the right intentions for visiting, sites such as these can become just as important to visit in later years too.
As kids, we would squash helpless insects or trash other kids’ sand castles, but for some this natural inclination toward death and destruction has persisted into adulthood in the form of grief tourism. Centuries ago, crowds would converge to see witch-burnings and hangings, which is forgivable seeing as television hadn’t been invented yet. However today’s ‘thanatourist’ who plans his holidays to sites where natural or manmade disasters have occurred could be characterised as reckless, disrespectful, and just plain weird.
Perhaps it escaped their notice, but disaster zones are so-named not only for the tragedy that has occurred but for its ramifications too. Whether war-torn or flooded, these destinations also suffer from disease, major property damage and widespread human displacement – all of which make for dangerous (not to mention less enjoyable) travels. Indeed, tourists in New Orleans after that oh-so-essential pic of ‘The Levee That Broke’ have been banned from parts of the city for their own safety.
Nevertheless, some say that grief tourism performs the vital function of raising awareness – and funds – for the destination. If there is one thing tourists are good at, it’s spending. However, their profitable presence may have the unfortunate side-effect of hampering relief efforts and consuming the already limited resources at their stricken location.
Moreover, when interfering with other people’s death ceremonies is taboo at home, why should snooping around a foreigner’s tragedy be any more acceptable? Funerals are not like weddings, where an eccentric Indian or naked theme means that any fun-loving stranger is welcome. The fact that it is not something you see every day does not justify you taking pictures of someone burying their Nan.
To visit a memorial or cemetery is sincere, to travel to a flood zone to volunteer first-aid skills is constructive, but to snoop around purely out of morbid fascination is disrespectful (and borderline creepy!). It merely serves to remind those who have suffered of their misfortune – just ask the mourners in the Tibetan mountains who stoned tourists to death for intruding on their famous ‘sky burial’ rituals.
Essentially grief tourism is unnecessary because, just like love, death is all around. Tragedy-lovers need only a healthy dose of Tosca to set them right. For educational purposes, perhaps try a museum or library, or if a more hands-on option suits you, why not join the army!
Much like skinny jeans and communism, grief tourism works in theory but unfortunately not in practice, so swap Hiroshima for hiking the Himalayas and then you’ll really have a holiday to die for.