Controversy arose in 2017 when a coach of tourists stopped to take selfies in front of Grenfell Tower’s skeleton, provoking local residents to urge people not take photos out of respect for victims and grieving families. The visitation of such places associated with death and tragedy has recently been coined ‘grief tourism.’
Whilst selfies in front of Grenfell are both distasteful and ignorant, the visit itself is not intrinsically unethical or unhealthy. A person’s conduct and motivations for visiting are what matter. Visiting to pay respects at a memorial service, lay flowers or talk to residents and local charities presents a completely different dimension to grief tourism.
As a growing phenomenon, grief tourism is raising many questions about the boundaries we should draw and our approaches to emotionally charged locations. Should the site of death and collective grief be part of a holiday itinerary? Or is visiting such locations a pivotal part of understanding and, most importantly, learning from history and injustice?
When we handle death in day to day life, there is often an element of privacy
Similar questions have been posed about visiting Auschwitz in Poland. The suggestion that it is unethical to visit such sights is founded on arguments against the commercialisation of death and suffering. Beyond this, some people maintain that the dignity of those who died is better preserved without showcasing the incarceration chambers and literal death traps to which people were lead.
When we handle death in day to day life, there is often an element of privacy. Whether it be through police cordons, white tents or closed casket funerals. To invade the murder site of millions in our masses, with our smartphones, can understandably be perceived as both insensitive and invasive.
Part of a collective history that belongs to us all
However, the death of 1.1 million people was not a private act. In some way, it was an infringement on human freedom and is part of a collective history that belongs to us all. In an age where we know more about the atrocities committed at Auschwitz than ever, it is paramount that we educate ourselves, however uncomfortable the truth may be. Visiting Auschwitz should be traumatic for us and is an experience that will mark you forever.
Although we learn about the horrors of WW2 and Hitler’s reign at school, walking in the footsteps of those who lost their lives psychologically entrenches the reality in a way that no textbook can. In this sense, it is arguably more ethical to visit Auschwitz and pay our respects, bringing an experience from which we are so far-removed to the forefront of our lives.
Many victims of Auschwitz and the Grenfell Tower fire already felt invisible, their legacy should not have a similar fate
When it comes to personal grief, we are often advised to be open, rather than suppressing it so that it haunts us at a later point. We should implement this in our approach to collective grief. Leaving such sites of mass trauma in the shadows only serves to render them hypothetical and almost invisible. In both contexts, many victims of Auschwitz and the Grenfell Tower fire already felt invisible, their legacy should not have a similar fate.
Grief tourism may not be for everyone, particularly for those who have personal emotional ties to a particular incident or site. Grief itself is such an individual process that it is not unethical not to visit and people may wish to pay their respects in other ways. But for those who do go to such locations, it is the way in which we conduct ourselves that matters.
Grief tourism allows us to reflect on lessons to be learnt from each tragedy
It can provide an opportunity to humble ourselves, appreciate the freedoms we enjoy today and encourage us to fight for them. Provided people conduct themselves in a calm manner in line with the wishes of those affected, grief tourism allows us to reflect on lessons to be learnt from each tragedy and experience grief collectively so that people do not feel alone.
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