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.
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