7. Thanatourism

A.V. Seaton developed a similar label to dark tourism in his definitive article, From Thanatopsis to Thanatourism: Guided by the Dark. In it, he describes thanatourism as being, “…travel to a location wholly, or partially, motivated by the desire for actual or symbolic encounters with death, particularly, but not exclusively, violent death, which may, to a varying degree be activated by the person-specific features of those whose deaths are its focal objects” (1996:240).

Seaton furthers this definition by adding two factors. First, thanatourism is behavioural; the concept is defined by the traveller’s motives rather than attempting to specify the features of the destination. Unlike Lennon and Foley’s concept, Seaton recognizes that individual motivations do play a role in death and disaster tourism.

Secondly, thanatourism is not an absolute; rather it works on a continuum of intensity based on two elements. First, whether it is the single motivation or one of many and secondly, the extent to which the interest in death is person–centred or scale–of–death centred. Figure 2 illustrates Seaton’s (1996) thanatourism continuum.


Figure 2. Seaton’s (1996) Thanatourism Continuum

Seaton (1999) subsequently developed five categories of activities related to death tourism based on motivation:

1. Travel to watch death, i.e. public hangings or executions;

2. Travel to sites after death has occurred, i.e. Auschwitz;

3. Travel to internment sites and memorials, i.e. graves and monuments;

4. Travel to re–enactments, i.e. Civil War re–enactors; and

5. Travel to synthetic sites at which evidence of the dead has been assembled, i.e. museums.

It is the latter category that pertains most to this research. Synthetic sites include, “…museums where weapons of death, the clothing of murder victims, and other artefacts are put on display” (1999:131). Synthetic sites include museums such as the Holocaust Museum Houston that displays such articles as clothing, photographs, and diaries from the Holocaust.

In their work on heritage dissonance, Tunbridge and Ashworth (1996) touch on atrocity as a tourist attraction. They enumerate six qualities that make atrocity usable:

1. Nature of cruelty favours unusual or spectacular;

2. Nature of the victims characterised by innocence, vulnerability, and noncomplicit;

3. Numbers only because human imagination has difficulties extending sympathies to small groups;

4. Nature of perpetrators should be unambiguously identifiable and distinguishable from the victims;

5. High profile visibility of the original event; and

6. Survival of records.