The commodification of death is booming. Battlefields, concentration camps, Chernobyl, catacombs, haunted houses, Rwandan and Cambodian genocide memorials: All are now sites of “dark tourism.”
But it’s not necessarily anything new. A century ago, Cook’s Tours could take you to the sites of the recently concluded Great War. Pompeii, where thousands were entombed by the eruption of Vesuvius in 79, has been swamped with sightseers—and treasure-hunters—for centuries; there have been so many this century that officials have tried to limit the crowds to conserve the site.
“For as long as humans have travelled for leisure, they have travelled to watch death, to view cadavers and relics,” writes geographer Tony Johnston. “Roman Gladiatorial games attracted crowds from around the Empire; medieval European pilgrimages to Christian relics of death sites were common; nineteenth-century tourists and locals visited Parisian morgues which could see 40,000 visitors per day.”
Instead of “dark tourism,” which he finds “sensational and emotionally laden,” Johnston prefers the term “thanatourism,” or travel designed to encounter death. Whatever it’s called, it seems to be growing in popularity. Places of atrocity and disaster—Auschwitz-Birkenau, Nagasaki and Hiroshima, Reactor 4 in Chernobyl—are hot.
“Considering the diversity of sites, consumption of death by tourists is essentially a continuum, with educational, authentic and history-centric at one end, and synthetic, entertainment-focused and inauthentic at the other,” Johnston writes. The London Dungeon, for example, markets self-styled “gory and gruesome” theatrical performances, while the Auschwitz site means to educate. Yet Johnston quotes a Polish tourist company that promotes a program for stag parties that take place in the concentration camp: “Quad biking in the morning then visit one of the world’s most haunting museums.”
“Preservation and creation of memory at sites of death and disaster seems intrinsically linked to tourism and commodification,” writes Johnston. “Narratives of deaths evolve, guided tours of the site are provided, souvenirs sold, photographs taken, and cash registers ring.”
Of course, these deathscapes can be sites of conflict between victims and/or their relatives on the one hand and the forces of commercialization on the other. Johnston gives the example of the controversial gift shop at the 9/11 museum site at New York City’s World Trade Center. Family members of victims were put off by the “availability of key-chains, cell phone cases, soft toys, bookmarks, fridge magnets and miniature toy fire engines.“
At the same time, thanatourism seems to have some benefits. Writes Johnston, “evidence points towards the cathartic value of interpreting conflict for outsiders, the presentation of death sites as means of legitimizing political struggles, and, potentially, as a development tool to help a local population come to terms with death.”
“Thanatourism may help stimulate good citizenship and encourage individual ethical responsibility from an early age. […] In an increasingly secular society, thanatourism may present one of the few opportunities where [people] can critically consider death and society’s relationship with death.”