Grief Tourism

Travel to areas affected by natural disasters, places where people were murdered, etc.

Difficult definition: what is thanatourism?

1st April 2007

Thanatourism is a difficult word to define because it is rarely used. So when we do use it, what exactly do we mean?

The most accepted scholar is probably A.V. Seaton. In his 1996 article, From Thanatopsis to Thanatourism: Guided by the Dark, Seaton argues that thanatourism is dependent on the traveller’s frame of mind. The thanatourist is “motivated by the desire for actual or symbolic encounters with death.”

Seaton claims that there are various degrees of thanatourism:

1. Travel to watch death (public hangings or executions)

2. Travel to sites after death has occurred (Auschwitz)

3. Travel to internment sites and memorials (graves and monuments)

4. Travel to reenactments (Civil War reenactors) 

5. Travel to synthetic sites at which evidence of the dead has been assembled (museums)

This leaves quite a bit of overlap and makes thanatourism seem like a common word that could encompass holocaust tourism, cemetery tourism, a visit to Strawberry Fields, or just about any type of grief tourism.

However, on the rare occasions when the word thanatourism is used, it often refers to very specific types of tourism (primarily type 1 – watching death – when the traveller most clearly wants to encounter actual death). This must include burials, such as Tibet’s famous sky burials. I have not heard thanatourism used to refer to celebrity burials, but I suppose it could be used for tourists who visited Reagan’s wake / funeral in Washington D.C.

The fact is we can not rely on scholars to define words for us. We have to see how the words are used in real life by normal people. This is difficult with uncommon words, but I think we can see that dark tourism and grief tourism are the more general terms that refer to many sites associated with death and disaster. Thanatourism is sometimes used for sites associated with violent death, particularly when travellers actually want to see a death or burial.

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