Grief Tourism

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

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Vaughan Street Jail in Winnipeg, Canada

3rd June 2007

Vaughan Street Jail or Jailhouse is not usually open to the public, but when it is open it is called dark tourism.

Hundreds got a rare glimpse of the 126-year-old concrete fortress Saturday. It was one of 52 buildings involved in the annual Doors Open Winnipeg weekend to show off the insides of historic structures normally closed to the public.

Tourists got to speak with a former hangman and hear stories about botched executions with heads ripped off and how 5-year-old children were incarcerated. Sounds pretty dark to me.

It seems like Vaughan Street Jail is only open for tourism during Doors Open Winnipeg, an annual event celebrating Winnipeg’s history.

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Arlington National Cemetery tourist attractions and burials

28th May 2007

Arlington National Cemetery is a good example of a popular tourist attraction that can be called grief tourism. It’s certainly a place where people go to feel grief, from the Tomb of the Unknowns to diffrent monuments and memorials to actual funeral ceremonies.

I’d like to share a few posts from a football message board regarding Memorial Day (these posts were made on an around the US Memorial Day Holiday in 2007) and burials in Arlington National Cemetery:

1. I  recently layed my father to rest in Arlinton. I have to say It was the first and I can only hope the last military funeral I have ever been to. But what a true honor it was to be there and experience such a thing. They truly do not forget a man’s service for his country and make every effort to make the families comfortable.

It was quit sobering to hear taps and the 21 gun salute as many times as we did during our service throughout the grounds.

I have to admit prior to this weekend memorial day was a day for remembrance for me but it was also a extra day off from work and grill out and what not. But now its a lot more than that not just becauce of my dad but all of the men and women who we have all lost.

2. Arlington is a very special place, and your Dad now rests in his rightful place among the other heroes.

3. Military burials are extremely emotional. Never experienced a burial at Arlington but my father & Grandfather were both buried at Calverton National Cemetery (as I will be eventually) and the playing of Taps & the presentation of the Flag to the family (my mother in both cases) were the toughest things to handle. Besides being present when both of them passed away those were by far the most emotional situations I ever had to deal with.

4. As a former soldier and member of the 3rd U.S. Infantry “The Old Guard” based at Ft. Myer, Arlington, VA … some of my duties included marching as part of a military escort/marching platoon (dress blues with almost razor-sharp creases, highly polished brass, etc.) for military burials “with honors” at Arlington National Cemetary.

After going through several burials it became pretty routine (almost as if it were like you had iced water running through your veins … basically you were totally focused on performing all of your rifle drill and ceremonial movements with near perfection). Besides, as part of the honor guard you cannot move, glance around, or hardly breathe let alone show/display any emotions.

It was an interesting, honorable, and memorable experience for me to have been a member of the Army’s most prestigious and elite ceremonial unit.

I wish all of the other veterans and active service members alike a very happy and safe Memorial Day!!! May those who served and paid with their lives while protecting the sovereignty and national interests of this great, great country … never be forgotten!!!

5. My grandfather was a SGT in the Air Force during WWII and wow what a service they put on for him in Aug of 2004. I honestly felt like my grandfather was an ex president of the US the way my grandfather and our family were treated during the ceremony. The gun salute and all. It was truly breath taking. Glad to hear your father received the same treatment.

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New York City’s Hart Island: ghost town, military base, cemetery

17th May 2007

This is an interesting story (with photos) of a tour on June 15, 2000. The site toured was Hart Island and the tour was provided by the New York Correction History Society.

Hart Island is said to be a ghost town with an abandoned church, asylum, and military base. The military base has Nike missile silos left over from the late 50’s and the cold war. These missiles were supposed to shoot Soviet ICBMs out of the sky before they landed in New York City.

But it’s not the abandoned military base that really qualifies Hart Island as a grief tourist destination. That distinction belongs to Potter’s Field.

Potter’s Field on Hart Island has been the burial place for New York’s unclaimed dead bodies since 1869. There are now over 700,000 bodies on Hart Island. This cemetery is unlike more famous and touristy cemeteries:

There are no ceremonies for the dead here on Hart Island.  Inmates from Riker’s Island are assigned burial detail and are ferried over to do the work.  Coffins are stacked beneath the ground–3 high, 10 across, 5 rows deep, between each of the white grave markers–crowding 150 adult bodies into each marked square.  Infant’s coffins are stacked in trenches and buried.

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Grief tourism in Chicago: even sports tourists can’t escape

1st May 2007

Here’s an interesting blog entry on ghost hunting in Chicago. You often see these kinds of articles on sites dedicated to ghost hunting, but this seems to be a site for fairly mainstream sports tourists like people who want to see a baseball game at Wrigley Field or go to a museum.

Then again, we see grief tourism so often. For example, The Freedom Museum in Chicago, a very mainstream tourism spot “contains stone pieces of historical significance from the Great Wall of China, the Alamo, the White House, the World Trade Center, and the Berlin Wall.”

Chicago also has the Abraham Lincoln Civil War tour which includes Stephen Douglas’ tomb and memorial along with other significant sites.

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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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Trying to explain the rise of dark tourism

25th March 2007

This article looks at dark tourism and explores (in a very shallow way) the popularity of dark tourism. Tourist sites mentioned include Ground Zero in New York (here there’s an interesting comment from a tourist who refused to leave the tour bus because he “felt it was a bit sick”), Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland, the Necropolis in Glasgow, the graves of Soham murder victims Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman, the killing fields of Choeung Ek and interrogation centre Tuol Sleng in Cambodia, plus Lockerbie and Dunblane in Scotland.

We get a quote from Professor John Lennon, of Glasgow Caledonian University:

“People want to go and be tourists in war zones while wars are happening. They seem to have an appetite to get very close while the blood is still dripping. There is no limit to the appetite for this stuff and demand is driving it faster and faster.

“We are always fascinated by the dark side of human nature and the most evil things people can do.”

I find this quote interesting for several reasons. First I think Lennon is exaggerating when he says there’s no limit to our appetite for visiting war zones. Ask yourself how many of your friends would like to visit a war zone and get close enough to see dripping blood. I know that experiencing a war is not on my shortlist of vacation ideas.

So I’m going to disagree with Lennon on his first point. There most certainly is a limit to our appetite for visiting war zones.

The Lennon says something about being fascinated by the dark side of human nature etc. I don’t think you have to be a scholar or a professor to know that. The reason I find this obvious comment interesting is because of what it implies about the definition of dark tourism. It implies that dark tourism is centered around the evil things that people do. This might not include acts of nature such as Hurricane Katrina or the Tsunami. As I’ve said before, the definitions of words like grief tourism and dark tourism are still being written so this interpretation will only be meaningful if other people also refer to things people do when they refer to dark tourism. We shall see.

Posted in Grief tourism in pop culture | 1 Comment »

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16th March 2007

A recent blog entry featured places that pay homage to figures whose lives were cut short by an assassin’s hand. Sounds like grief tourism to me and some of the destinations are featured on

You’ve got Rome, where Caesar was assassinated. You’ve got Dallas where there’s a famous grassy knoll on the north side of Elm Street and John F. Kennedy Memorial Plaza. Then there’s Washington D.C. where you can see a play at Ford’s Theatre, the Lincoln Memorial, and the National Museum of Health and Medicine (to see the .44 caliber bullet which was removed from Lincoln’s head, plus a skull fragments from Honest Abe). And there’s New York City’s Strawberry Fields memorial in Central Park in memory of John Lennon who was shot nearby outside the Dakota building.

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KZ Mauthausen-Gusen: museum & former concentration camp in Austria

31st October 2006

From 1940 to 1945, a concentration camp located in Mauthausen, Austria was a place of torture and murder for hundreds of thousands of people during World War II. Prisoners consisted of men, women and children from various races and creeds. By 1945, more than 15,000 or over 19% of the total prison population were children that were being forced into labor. The camps most notorious way of putting their detainees to death was extermination through labor.

The KZ Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camp was home to a rock quarry that the prisoners were forced to work in. The effects of malnutrition left the prisoners underweight and weakened. These prisoners were forced to carry rocks weighing up to 100 lbs up 186 stairs, known as the “stairs of death.” They were forced to climb one directly behind the other so that when one would collapse, they would fall back onto those behind them and cause a domino effect. If they were unable to work or to complete their tasks they were either shot, beaten to death, or taken to the gas chamber.

The number of people who where killed at KZ cannot be proven definitively because the Nazi’s attempted to destroy all records when they left the camp in 1945. However, through eyewitness accounts and records kept by those who worked at the camp it has been determined that somewhere between 180,000 to 300,000 people lost their lives.

The KZ camp was the last to be liberated at the end of World War II. When the U.S. Army arrived to liberate the prisoners, the prisoners affected a small amount of revenge upon their tormenters when they turned on the approximately 30 guards who remained and hung them.

The torture and murder of hundreds of thousands of prisoners led to the installation of a museum at the camp. Today, people from all over the world go through the museum to learn more about the people who lost their lives there. The hours of operation are Tuesday – Saturday from 10 am to 2 pm. They offer explanations in German and English and have descriptive flyers in Polish, French and Italian. The point of the museum is to remind us all what happened there and why we can never allow it to happen again. For more information about the museum you can contact the KZ Gusen Visitors Center by telephone at ++43 7238 2269 or online at – The site provides detailed information about the history of the camp, the current museum tours and much more.

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Thanatourism: Sky burials in Tibet

3rd September 2006

Thanatourism is derived from the Ancient Greek word thanatos in mythology, for the personification of death.  Thanatourism is an extreme form of grief tourism that involves the dark contemplation of death at the time of its occurrence.  Every religion has a different approach to death and in the mountains of Tibet, there is (from the western perspective) a strange and morbid sky burial ritual that has its basis in the Buddhist belief of rebirth after death.  Sky burials are believed to have existed as early as 400 B.C., according to the prophecies of the Greek philosopher, Zoroaster.  Zoroastrians believed that on the 4th day after death, the soul leaves the body to return to nature.  Since fire and earth were considered sacred and not to be used for burial in the Zoroastrian religion, the bodies were left on open-topped enclosures called Towers of Silence or Dokhmas for disposal by the vultures and the weather.

It must be remembered that Tibet is a land where sky burials are closely associated with nature, partially due to necessity.  Here, soil is at a premium and wood for funeral pyres, other than yak chips, is practically nonexistent on the 12,000-foot plateau.  Beyond Llasa, the spiritual heart of Tibet, the area is remote and regulations seem too distant to apply.  There are 1,075 sky burial sites, where about 100 people called sky burial operators, are designated to perform the rituals.  The largest sky burial site, Drepung Monastery, founded in 1416, has received an average of 10 bodies per day for thousands of years. 

Sky burial rituals are not performed on the 19th day of the Tibetan calendar, a day of reading the sutras for the dead, a divine procedure in Buddhism.  The sky burial takes place, usually at dawn, and tourists, if allowed, are bathed in juniper incense, while three or four attendants wrap the bodies of the dead and lay them on flat rocky ledges.  Monks lead the procession to the burial ground where Tibetan prayer flags surround the area.  The higher up the mountain the more precedence is given, as in a burial site for a monk, rather than for a commoner.  The vultures or lammergeyers, known as “dakinis,” or “sky dancers,” hover above the site while strange calls emanate from attendants summoning these birds of prey to devour the pieces of carcass that are tossed 10 to 15 feet in the air toward the sky.  Bones are chopped and tossed aside in a methodical and solemn procedure, designed to emphasize the impermanence of life.  Since Buddhists believe there is no purpose in keeping the body after death when the spirit has gone, the actual feeding to the vultures is considered a final act of charity, an essential part of the cycle of life and death. 

In some cases, the body is tied to a pole, and slowly stripped of flesh by the vultures.  A Tibetan monk arrives with a sledge hammer and a burlap apron around his waist to continue chopping up the skeleton and the head, and these small pieces are mixed together with a paste of roasted barley flour, sugar, and butter to further attract the birds.  At the end of the ritual, the entire area is swept clean, although some religious sects retain pieces of the skulls to use as teacups. 

For many, the visits to the sites of these rituals near Mt. Kailish, the home of the Buddhist God Kang Ringboche, are pilgrimages, firmly rooted in religious beliefs.  For others, it is a way to connect with nature, to rejuvenate the mind and spirit, to regain a feeling of perspective between man and the universe.  Tibet itself is a country so distant that its spirituality seems to be everywhere.  Indeed, the entire land of Tibet seems to hold a magical attraction, a Nirvana where time stands still and pleasure comes from meditation and deep reflection. 

The media has brought death and tragedy in lurid, morbid details and reports from the far corners of the world to us all.  It is entirely possible that thanatourism in Tibet exists simply because of the unknown, mysterious phenomenon of death itself.  Although the sky burial may seem primitive and bizarre, its apparent link between the living and the dead seems to provide an opportunity to experience death vicariously.  Thanatourists are fascinated with symbolic encounters with death and the more realistic the ritual appears, the greater the fascination. 

Sky burials were banned in the 1960s and 1970s to foreigners or Westerners; however, Chinese officials began allowing sky burials again in the 1980s.  Again, in 1983, the sites were closed for a time when a group of tourists were stoned by grieving relatives.  Although the government has banned outsiders from actually participating, unless by invitation, and photography is forbidden, many monks act as guides and take tourists to these sites.  The compensation they receive is usually left as donations for the monastery or collected by the government.  The Chinese government, anticipating over 5 million tourists to visit Tibet in the next few years, is actively arranging tours and encouraging hotels and travel agents to promote tourism of any type.  Whether the Tibetans will be able to keep their religious beliefs and traditions to live in peace or whether pressure from the Chinese government, the media, and the thanatourist will take precedence remains to be seen.

Sharon L. Slayton

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For worldwide travel plans and vacation ideas, check out my travel blog. We have itineraries for many different travel experiences.

For travel to and from Moscow, check out Russian train tickets. You have a lot of different rail options.

Farewell to Ronald Reagan

19th August 2006

Ronald Wilson Reagan, 40th president of the U.S., died in Santa Monica, California, on June 5, 2004, at the age of 93.  For many of us, Reagan had been gone for over 10 years, a slow fading away in the progressive stages of Alzheimer’s disease.  Perhaps, as his memory began to fail, we too chose to forget. 

The week of mourning began on June 7 when the casket was moved from the funeral home to the lobby of the Reagan Presidential Library at Simi Valley.  Two days later, it was flown to Washington, D.C., where world and religious leaders attended official funeral services, wreaths were laid, and eulogies were given.  Subsequently, the viewing was opened to the public and an incredible 200,000 or more came to pay their respects and be a part of history.  On June11, following the official proclamation of mourning, the funeral procession began its long journey down Constitution Avenue to the Capitol Rotunda.  While crowds of people, his supporters, his critics, his allies, and his enemies lined the streets, the media reveled in the pomp and tradition of this grandiose production.  This time there were no vociferous protests against Reagan’s eternal optimism and conservative politics, but a somber silence as people seemed unabashed in their sentimentality or momentary grief.  Someone in the crowd commented, “I didn’t know he had died, until I bought the commemorative newspaper.”  Sadly enough, many others did not know or even care, but in a strange characteristic of human nature, their curiosity aroused, rushed for a chance to say goodbye. 

After the official state funeral service at the Washington Cathedral, attended by 4,000 invitees, the casket was flown on Air Force One to California and carried in a 25-mile motorcade for interment at the Reagan Memorial Library.  A smaller group of about 700 people, family, close friends, and a number of Hollywood celebrities gathered at the mortuary for the Friday sunset service.  The outdoor fountain was covered with flowers, candles, teddy bears, old photographs, and jars of jellybeans.  While photographers took close-ups of Ronnie’s Tinseltown friends, some recall the humor in his words “How can a president not be an actor?” 

It is always interesting to note that the birthplace of famous people is seldom visited or even recognized as being more than a small dot on the map until their death.  Today, however, Dixon has become famous and now there are three presidents from Illinois to add even more interest and sightseeing attraction to grief tourism.  With the death of Reagan, part of the Interstate Hwy 88 was named the Ronald Reagan Memorial Highway, in an effort to attract more visitors to the area.  Today more than 350 arrive each day to visit Tampico, the boyhood home of “Dutch” Reagan, the high school football star.  Just as many visit the Peace Garden memorial at his alma mater, Eureka College, more than likely to view a piece of the Berlin Wall.  Numerous notable landmarks and memorials, highways, exhibits, institutions, airports, and public and government buildings have been named in his honor.

More than one million people have visited The Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum in Simi Valley, California since its opening in 1991.  Open every day from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., except Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years Day, admission is $12.00 for ages 16 – 61;  $9.00 for 62 and over; $3.00 for 11-17, and under 11 free.  The Library has an extensive research collection that includes the years of his presidency, governorship, and acting career; DVDs of the funeral procession, election materials, and speeches.  There is a shorter recording of the highlights of his many accomplishments through the years, narrated by the President himself, including those private moments on Air Force One and treasured photos of home and family.  The Air Force One Pavilion, connected to the Presidential Library by a replica of the White House Rose Garden, represents a tribute to his achievements as a great communicator and promoter of peace around the world.

It is not for us to question the dramatization or the choreography of the final scene, but to reflect upon the man himself, his humor, and his down-to-earth appeal for many of us.  Whether our visits are prompted by grief, nostalgia, or nothing more than morbid curiosity, it is worthwhile to reflect upon the words he wrote for his own epitaph “I know in my heart that man is good, that what is right will always eventually triumph and there is purpose and worth to each and every life.” 
Sharon L. Slayton

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