Cemetery Tourism: Symbolic Attractions

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Cemeteries have a strange and macabre attraction for the curious and the morose.  The dark symbolism of granite headstones, monuments, and crypts, viewed by some with sorrow and grief, is often no more than a part of a sightseeing itinerary for the general populace.Â

Pere-LaChaise in Paris, France, a burial place for such notable figures as Maria Callas, Modigliani, Jim Morrison, Edith Piaf, Chopin, and Gertrude Stein, is thought to be the most visited cemetery in the world.  When first established in 1804 by Napoleon Bonaparte, the cemetery attracted few funerals and fewer visitors due to its remote location.  In an effort to exploit the potential profit from tourism, marketing strategists moved the remains of Moliere and the legendary lovers Heloise and Abelard to a more accessible site.  As more famous people were interred in Pere-LaChaise, it soon became a much sought-after burial place.  In the rows and divisions of gravesites for the rich and famous, there is only one monument that remains unknown.

Today, tourists come each year to view the grand mausoleums, private chapels, and elaborate tombs of the people who made history.  Crowds of melancholics and incurable romantics, grief seekers, and even so-called professional mourners arrive by the thousands to Pere-LaChaise.  Aside from the ghoulish pleasure they may receive, there is little cause in most cases for quiet reflection and no apparent connection with the dead.  Cemetery tourism, oddly enough, does seem to provide a great deal of satisfaction for many in reliving the excitement and passion of long ago.  Some tourists bring the appropriate flowers, wreaths, or other tributes, while others simply follow tradition, leaving lipstick kisses on the headstone of the infamous and flamboyant Oscar Wilde.  Since the cemetery is quite large, with over 300,000 burial sites and five World War I memorials, navigational maps are provided for tours of the premises.  Visitors and tourists bring lunch on family outings and holiday treks and enjoy the roasted chestnuts and sausages sold just outside the cemetery gates.  At times, the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra and choir singers perform at open gravesites, adding the customary funeral music to the burial ritual.  Pere La-Chaise is open Monday through Friday, 8:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m., Saturday from 8:30 a.m. to 6:00 p.m., and Sunday from 9:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.  Admission is free.
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In a less remarkable, distant corner of Vienna, Austria, lies the tranquil Friedhof der Namenlosen, the Cemetery of the Nameless.  The first to be buried here were the bodies of strangers who perished and washed ashore in the floods of the Danube in the mid to late 1800’s.  Most of the 500 victims were so badly decomposed, it was impossible to identify them.  A few simple crosses and broken stones reflect the tragedy and sorrow of accidental death, murder, and unrequited love.  After 1940 when the last funeral was held, few visitors returned to grieve their loss.  The Cemetery of the Nameless has no elaborate headstones, few living flowers, and few words in memoriam.  Candles no longer burn for these ghosts of the past who rest amid the rocks and boulders now covered with brambles and thorns.  No names of famous people can be found, no music can be heard, and no professional speakers orate, and yet, the symbolism of the Cemetery of the Nameless haunts us in its neglect and isolation.  There is no admission charge to this lonely place where grief is far too overwhelming to contemplate.

In the movie Before Sunrise, the two lovers meet on a train to Vienna, a city, according to Freud, that has a peculiar obsession for death and melancholia.  In one night of wandering the streets of the city, they discover life, love, and romance.  Their attraction for each other and eagerness to share the past continues to grow as each carefree hour goes swiftly by.  In their visit to the Cemetery of the Nameless, we sense the longing of a woman to recapture her youth and innocence, as she recalls a similar visit as a child.  The scene of nostalgia and romantic illusion leaves us with a feeling of sadness, as we wonder if love too is subject to time and as unpredictable as life itself.  The cemetery is somehow symbolic of opportunities missed and the reality of knowing that some things are truly lost and forgotten, only to be buried in the memories of yesterday.

It has been said that cemetery tourism for some is an “aphrodisiac for necrophilia,” for others, a temporary feeling of sentimentalism and grief, but for many, it is just another form of entertainment.  Cemetery tourism has become far more than a popular tourist attraction; it is, in reality, an institution.

Sharon L. Slayton

Hurricane Katrina: fear and grief tourism

The states along the Gulf Coast of the U.S. have a reason to fear the onset of hurricane season and the inevitable disasters that occur.  Storm warnings had been issued from Florida to Louisiana and yet, many thought this would be just another hurricane.  On August 29, 2005 Katrina came ashore, bringing a storm surge of 35 feet of water and a 30-mile eye wall.  In less than eight hours, entire towns along the coastline were gone, leaving no trace of homes, businesses, and roads in a 70-mile path of destruction.Â

Power and communication lines lay broken in the tide while animals, people, personal belongings, homes, and vehicles were swept away.  The wetlands vanished in the hurricane’s wrath and over 80% of New Orleans was virtually under water.  People clung to rooftops, branches of trees, and each other in desperation, as rescue attempts were made.  From the poorest to the rich and famous, Katrina made no discrimination.  Those with no vehicles, no money, and not even a TV to warn them of the mandatory evacuation watched in horror as their few possessions and loved ones were swept away.  The few who chose to remain could only watch the widespread devastation in helpless frustration, a tragedy beyond their control.  At the convention center in New Orleans, crowds of people filled the arena until the roof began to leak, sanitary facilities became inoperable, and people were turned away at the front doors.  Highways became roadways of more disaster, as people fled inland to higher ground.  Others stood in line for hours in stifling heat, without water and food, fighting for seats on emergency buses, as shelters and hospitals overflowed.  The National Guard was sent in to control the looting and the drug-related violence, as people panicked in the streets and fought for food and survival.  We listened to the urgent pleas for help in finding the missing and opened our homes and our hearts to thousands of displaced people, doing what we could to somehow ease their grief and suffering.

In the aftermath of Katrina, suicide rates tripled and stories of more grief and sadness began to surface, the people left behind, too ill to evacuate, unconfirmed reports of mercy killings in hospitals, bodies in coffins awaiting identification, and families separated from their loved ones.  Slow progress is being made toward recovery, as people return to grieve their losses.  Many others have no way to return and 60 percent of the residents of New Orleans remain in exile.  In some towns and cities, optimism and resilience have replaced despair, but in so many others, the shock, the agony, and the emptiness still remain.

While New Orleans’ huge tourist industry collapsed following Katrina, there were a few who wanted to see the destruction with their own eyes. The bars, restaurants, and souvenir shops are now open to tourists, eager to view the scene of a tragedy.  While the sounds of jazz fill the streets of the French Quarter, the plaintive sound of a trumpet echoes somewhere in the darkness and desolation of the Big Easy.

The Katrina Memorial in Biloxi Mississippi, dedicated to those who perished in the tragedy, opened February 15, 2006 at a candlelight vigil.  At the time of its opening to visitors, piles of debris and damaged buildings still lay on the ground.  Within the 12-foot high Memorial stands a glass-enclosed case containing objects collected by the survivors, a faded photograph, a watch that no longer runs, a string of pearls, bits and pieces of a lifetime.  In time, the names of the victims, many still missing and unaccounted for, will be inscribed on the Memorial.  The National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. plans to open an exhibit in 2008 displaying 60 artifacts from Katrina, including a parking lot exit sign from New Orlean’s flooded 7th Ward, a blue and white hurricane sign posted on Broad Street with an arrow to safety, and a rosary used by a weathercaster forced to abandon his station.Â

Much of the grief we feel is in the failure of the government to act responsibly, the lack of accountability, and the apparent miscommunications.  Somehow, the apologies and excuses we listen to do little to lessen the sadness that we feel.  A year later, as another hurricane season approaches, we hear that some levees have been repaired and rebuilt and some towns have resumed some semblance of normalcy.  Yet, the people along the Gulf Coast live in fear, wondering if they really are any better prepared than they were last year, or will it be the same tale of grief and sorrow.  Buildings and towns can be rebuilt and floodwaters can be drained, but we are left to ponder in our grief the words of Rabbi Wolpe, “…those who only watched the devastation must remember the vivid images of lives upended, dreams shattered, homes and hearts swept up in the storm.  Those who lived through it have the far harder task of clinging to what does last:  to memory, to hope, to each other

Sharon L. Slayton

Hiroshima: Tourist Destination & Plea for Peace

It was a cruel event that made Hiroshima the tourist attraction that it is today. The United States War Department, in accordance with the Manhattan Project, issued the final order for the bombing of Hiroshima, Japan on July 25th, 1945.  On August 6, 1945, at 8:15 a.m., the first atomic bomb in the world, flown by the “Enola Gay,” dropped the equivalent of 15,000 tons of TNT on the unsuspecting city.  The bomb, nicknamed “Little Boy,” was to change the path of history forever.  There was no escape from temperatures that reached over 4,000 degrees, as over 90% of Hiroshima was completely destroyed.  Perhaps the saddest part of August 6th were the hundreds of innocent victims left dying or dead in the streets, the majority of whom were civilians, not casualties of combat.  The immediate death, the devastating effects of radiation, and the immeasurable psychological damage left to the survivors haunt us today.

In 1946, the Australian soldiers, part of the occupation forces sent to Japan, were among the first to view the scene of the tragedy.  In the harbor of Hiroshima lay the remains of the once seemingly invincible Imperial Japanese Navy.  As aircraft carrying Japanese soldiers from the ruins of their empire flew over capsized and shattered battleships, hundreds of starving, ragged people struggled along a road to survival.  Unaware of the dangers of radiation, the soldiers hurried through a broken city, where acres and acres of wood and tile and shells of concrete buildings lay across their path.  The city of Hiroshima had been reduced to shambles, and yet, even in the face of this incredible disaster, the Japanese people somehow maintained a serene composure.

Some 60 years later, Hiroshima is once again a beautiful city with little trace of the tragedy, a tragedy the world would like to forget.  The old Castle of the Emperor Tojo has been restored and Main Street looks much the same.  Smiling Japanese children, wearing T-shirts with American slogans and sharing McDonald’s Happy Meals, welcome visitors and pose for photographs.  Overhead, the blue and sunny skies seem to defy the ugly grey of August 6th, 1945.

The Peace Memorial Park in Hiroshima covers an area of over 122,000 meters and every year on this fateful day since 1947, the mayor delivers a declaration to remind us all of the need for worldwide peace.  As we listen to the tolling of the Peace Bell, we offer silent tribute for the victims and the survivors.  The Peace Memorial Museum, on the grounds of the Park, contains models and panoramic scenes of a once-ruined city, recorded testimony of survivors, and fervent messages of hope for the future.  In the center of the Park stands the “The A-bomb dome,” purposely designed to reflect in startling realism the catastrophe of the atomic blast.  The visiting hours at the Hiroshima City Museum are from March 1 – November 30; 8:30 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.; December 1 – February 28, 8:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., and August 1-31 from 8:30 a.m. to 7:00 p.m.  Admission is 50 yen for adults and 30 yen for children, ages 6 to 18.  Guided tours are available and group tours are free.

Atomic Tower in Hiroshima

While visiting Hiroshima today, perhaps with some sense of guilt along with grief, we must ask a question.  Was the bombing, in fact, a brilliant military maneuver in an ongoing war for democracy, or was it an unfortunate beginning to the widespread fear that remains with us today?  A choice was made, a road was taken, and in the words of Robert Frost …”and that has made all the difference.”  The tragedy of Hiroshima leaves us to contemplate the very real possibility of a final Armageddon, an empty planet and a lost civilization.

Sharon L. Slayton

Anne Frank Museum in Amsterdam, the Netherlands

The Anne Frank Museum officially opened in 1960 to visitors from around the world, the curious, the incredulous, and the sorrowful.  In early 1942, Otto Frank and Herman Van Pels began preparing their office building in a nondescript old part of Amsterdam in the hopes of avoiding detection and capture by the German Nazis.  Their hiding place, the Secret Annex, consisted of two upper floors and a dimly lit attic, which housed two families, an acquaintance, food, and supplies.  Carefully hidden behind a moveable bookcase, they managed to carry on their daily activities in the Annex and remain undetected for over two years.  In 1944, betrayed by an informer, they were arrested by the SS troops and deported to the concentration camp at Westerbork.  Anne Frank died in a typhus epidemic that swept the camp and the others met their fate at the hands of the Nazis.  Otto Frank, the only survivor, was released in 1945 to return to the Secret Annex, where he found the diary that we read today.

A tour of the Anne Frank Museum brings to life the harsh reality of one of the cruelest periods in history.  We follow this incredible story through the Diary of Anne Frank, a tragic and true diary written by a once carefree, 13-year old Jewish schoolgirl.  The Anne Frank Museum houses a remarkable collection of letters, postcards, photographs, and objects recovered  by Otto Frank and others from the Secret Annex.  They reflect the memories, the fear, and the plight of just one of the untold numbers of Jewish people in wartime.

 

The Anne Frank Museum is located at Prinsengracht 267 in Amsterdam, Holland.  Open daily from 9:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. and March 15 – September 14, 9:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m.  Exceptions:  January 1 and December 25, 12 Noon – 7:00 p.m., May 4 and June 24, 9:00 a.m.  – 7:00 p.m., December 21 & 31, 9:00 a.m.  – 5:00 p.m.  Closed on Yom Kippur.  Admission (in Euros):  Adults:  7,50; ages 10-7:  3,50; ages 0-9:  Free.  The purchase of evening tickets, recommended for avoiding long lines and immediate entrance, can be purchased in advance at Amsterdam Tourist Offices and the Amsterdam Uitburo.  A separate facility, adjacent to the historic building, includes a museum store, cafe, and information desk.

 

Sharon L. Slayton

Auschwitz: A Grim Reminder of the Holocaust

Auschwitz, in the suburbs of Oswiecim, Poland, was a complex of three concentration camps, Auschwitz I for death, II for slave labor, and III for transport.  It was the scene of one of the world’s greatest tragedies, the mass genocide of over one million Poles, European Jews, and Roma people (the gypsies) in the darkest years of WWII.  This was the “killing ground,” the “final solution” to what the Nazis termed a “Jewish problem.”  There is nothing we can relate to or compare with the cruelty and evil that took place in Auschwitz.  The main camp consisted of 28 barracks buildings, housing up to 20,000 prisoners at one time, who were systematically put to death, as more victims continued to arrive.  In just one two-month period of one year, almost a half a million Jews were exterminated.Â

Auschwitz II, or Birkenau, was chosen for its proximity to the railroad lines, where prisoners, rounded up from every part of the country, were transported in cattle cars and dropped off by the trainloads at Auschwitz III.  Here, they were selected and separated from their families to exist as laborers under the most inhumane conditions or to be immediately eliminated.  Others were chosen for chemical and physical experimentation.  Birkenau, the larger of the two camps, covered 425 acres, with 300 buildings that could house up to 200,000 prisoners.  Four brick buildings, with gas chambers and ovens, were added to speed up the process of mass murder as more and more Jews were seized and deported.

During the years immediately following WWII, it took some time for people, other than the survivors and relatives of the victims, to attach much credibility to the ongoing news reports of Auschwitz and other similar concentration camps.  Such stories were met with shock and disbelief; how could such things have happened.  For many of us, it wasn’t until the criminals responsible for these atrocities were put on trial that we finally faced the terrible reality of the Holocaust.  On Jul 2, 1947, the Polish Parliament combined two of the Auschwitz camps in the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum and the third camp was subsequently destroyed.  Auschwitz I and II have been preserved for the millions of tourists who come each year to view the Museum and Birkenau, the largest Jewish graveyard in the world, where the ashes of over a million victims were scattered across the fields.  People from every country and every religious faith have shared in the sorrow and relived the nightmare of Auschwitz.

Over the entrance to the main gate of the camp, we read the irony in the sign, originally placed there by Rudolph Hoess, whose villa and garden where his children played stood next to one of the crematoriums.  The words, “Arbeit Macht Frei,” translate to  “work will set you free.”  The Jews were, in fact, not brought here to work; they were brought here to die.  What spiritual release he was referring to in such “work” is beyond our comprehension.  As we walk through the area, we listen to a flow of information given by smiling, friendly tourist guides.  The scene is one of horror, where abandoned suitcases, prosthetic limbs, human hair, children’s shoes, eye glasses, and empty Zylon B gas canisters are piled together, grim reminders of the mass graves of so many innocent people.  We pass the gas chambers, the experimental lab, the sterilization ward, one of the four crematoriums, and the incoming ramp to the ovens where the original metal rollers are still in place.  We can somehow hear the cries of the dying and feel the grief that is all around us.

Where does one look in such a place, where there is nothing to see, but the reality of a tragedy that should never have occurred?  We can only contemplate and reach out in spirit, as we remember and hope that the darkest days of history will not repeat themselves.

Auschwitz was designated a UNESCO heritage site in 1979 and to date over 25,000,000 have visited the site.  Tourist hotels in Krakow are only an hour away and guided tours, advisable for groups, can be arranged for 3 1/2 hours, or one and two days.  Admission is free and the Museum is open seven days a week during the following hours: 8:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m., December through February; 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., March & November; 8:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m., April & October; 8:00 a.m. – 6:00 p.m., May & September; and 8:00 a.m. – 7:00 p.m. June, July, & August.

Sharon L. Slayton

Thanatourism: Sky burials in Tibet

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.Â

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.Â

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.Â

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. Â

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.Â

Sky burials were banned in the 1960’s and 1970’s to foreigners or Westerners; however, Chinese officials began allowing sky burials again in the 1980’s.  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

Ghost hunting vacations around the world

A few days ago I wrote about a few haunted mansions, bars, and churches. Today in my email I had a guest article on ghost hunting organizations. I guess the thinking is you can travel within the US or take one of those offseason deals to Europe and tour a haunted castle or something on vacation. People visit castles on vacation all the time – ghost hunting in a castle might be a little less touristy. Anyway, here’s the guest article:

 

In the past, ghost hunters were thought to be abnormal and people were very leery of their findings and adventures. Today there are numerous ghost-hunting organizations throughout the world that are increasing in members on a regular basis.

 

With so many different ghost hunting organizations out there, it is impossible to list them all but here is just a preview of what is available for those who have an interest in hunting for the ghosts that haunt us. There is the International Ghost Hunters Society that claims to have completed over 1,500 investigations into the sightings of ghosts and the places they haunt. You can locate a ghost hunting organization in almost every state. For example: The Utah Ghost Hunters Society, Philadelphia Ghost Hunters Alliance, Ghost Hunters of Southern Michigan, New Jersey Ghost Hunters, and countless others.

 

There are also numerous places around the world that offer ghost hunts for those of us that would like something different for our next vacation. Pengersick Castle is located in Cornwall in the United Kingdom. It is said to be haunted by many ghosts including murder victims that died in the tower, as well as a monk that was killed by Henry Pengersick in the 14th century, and even children that were reported to have died in the castle.

 

Tours and ghost hunts of the Pengersick Castle can be taken on Saturday evenings from April through October from 8:00 pm to 1:00 am. If you would like to book a ghost tour, you can contact Pengersick Ghost Nights by phone at 01736 331206, or visit their website at www.ghosthunting.org.uk.

 

If your traveling overseas, make sure to look for haunted locations and tours in the area you will be visiting. A company called Haunted Castles and Hotels offers tours all over the world. One is the Dragsholm-Slot Hotel in Sealand, Denmark that claims to be home to three ghosts, a gray lady, a white lady and the ghost of the Earl of Bothwell. It is said that every night you can hear the Earl’s horse drawn carriage approaching the hotel, but when you look outside, it is not there. They also offer tours of eight different castles throughout England, the Brissac castle in France, the Bran Castle in Romania, ten castles throughout Scotland, three castles and hotels in Ireland, and four castles in Wales. They offer tours such as the Best of Britain and Ireland tours that provide the guest with several tours in a single visit! If you would like to know more, you can get more information at www.hauntedcastlesandhotels.com on the various tours they offer and more detailed information and history on each castle they visit.

 

Many people enjoy being a bit frightened and feed on the excitement of ghost hunting. Do a little research and find a ghost hunting organization that is near your location. Give them a call and go with them one night for a ghost hunt. That is, if you think you can handle facing the things that haunt us!