Ground Zero

Death and dark tourism – how travel helps inform our grief

Posted by AK Lander | On April 30, 2018 17:12

Understanding and processing through grief is one of the hardest parts of being human, especially if it is unexpected or your first time experiencing it.

Understanding and processing through grief is one of the hardest parts of being human, especially if it is unexpected or your first time experiencing it. While personal grief is a deeply intimate experience, visiting areas that are tied with global catastrophes or are deeply associated with death, can not only help us understand the upsetting events in the past, but also to scale our own upset.

Dark tourism is the name given to the act of visiting sites that have negative associations, and while some are looking for peace in a famous graveyard, others are looking to comprehend the scale of the disaster. Here we found some of the most famous dark tourism sites and what they offer to those who visit them.


The Taj Mahal

Taj Mahal

The Taj Mahal has been on many people’s bucket lists for as long as they can remember, but beyond the symmetrical gardens and stunning architecture, the Taj Mahal is a mausoleum. The iconic structure is a tomb of the favourite wife of the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan. Its detailed interior is richly decorated and every aspect of the exterior is built to be visually pleasing and as such many people miss the grief that is the foundations of one of the world’s most-celebrated wonders.

After the death of his wife, Shah Jahan’s despair was so great that he was unable to continue with his Imperial duties and was eventually imprisoned by a relative in sight of the monument to his grief. Though it should be a place of peace and stillness, Nikki from The Traveling Ginger mentions how busy the site is:

“Whatever time you visit the Taj Mahal you will see tons of people, and it will be chaotic. Tens of thousands of people visit the Taj Mahal daily. It will not be the peaceful, serene spot that you imagine it to be. This tends to be the case for most major tourist spots in India.”


Paris Catacombs

Sign in the Paris Catacombs

The catacombs of Paris are tunnels that stretch beneath much of this ancient city. Some of the underground complex is now open to the public but most of it is still off limits and deemed unsafe. As with many older cities that have expanded over the years, the burial of their dead has become ever more problematic, and while high-ranking citizens may have earned themselves a place in a cemetery, the unknown, lower class or even the older bones all became interred beneath the foundations of Paris. In 1785, the problems of burials within the walls of Paris became so great that the idea of an underground sepulchre became law. Since then the historic cemeteries (the largest was Saints Innocents with about 2 million people buried there over the 600-year operation) resumed beneath the ground where dead Parisians found their final resting place.


Pere Lachaise

Cemetery in Paris

Pere Lachaise is the most-visited cemetery in the world and as the burial places for many iconic figures, it is a place of cultural pilgrimage for many people. Whether literary buffs wish to visit Oscar Wilde’s Headstone or fans of The Doors pay tribute to Jim Morrison, Pere Lachaise is often a place to acknowledge the loss, especially when wandering through the ornate mausoleums or weathered headstones.

The cemetery itself has seen some conflict on its own turf as it was the site of a civil war in 1871 and the Mur des Federes is a testimony to the blood spilt. Pere Lachaise has also inspired in its own right, featuring in films and being mentioned in literature since its rise to fame.

The cemetery crosses so many niche fan bases thanks to the sheer volume of celebrities buried here and thus becomes a place of shared grief for a variety of cult followings. Sarah from The Wander Blogger talks of her own hunt for Jim Morrison’s grave:

“Probably the easiest to find inside Père Lachaise Cemetery (just follow the crowds), Jim Morrison’s grave is located northeast of the main entrance. However, due to some defacing of his gravestone, visitors are no longer allowed to touch his burial site. Morrison’s grave and those surrounding it are protected on all sides by a metal fence and, occasionally, a cemetery guard.

“I don’t know what I was expecting. Maybe a stereo playing Light My Fire on repeat and fans waving lighters in the air? Instead, it was rather anticlimactic – just a bunch of people standing around looking at a rather modest gravestone. (Especially when compared to the more exotic graves of Père Lachaise’s other famous residents.) Someone, this magnetic in life should not have been memorialized by such a dull grave marker in death.”



railway to Auschwitz

As a symbol of the Holocaust, Auschwitz Concentration Camp is often visited by those who have a family history bound to the tragedy. Initially constructed to hold Polish political prisoners, the warping of the camp’s use as well as the deteriorated structures, are all a long-standing reminder of the cruelty of the Nazi regime.

The paraphernalia left behind by those who lost their lives here does much to confront the modern-day visitor, and despite the attempts to cover the horrors committed here, Auschwitz is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site so it will not be forgotten. Sofie from Wonderful Wanderings spoke about her concerns around visiting Auschwitz:

“I’d always wanted to tour Auschwitz. No, that’s not right. I’ve always felt like I had to visit Auschwitz. To not forget. To continue telling the story of what happened there. Yet going there scared me a bit and as I didn’t know what it would do to me, I was reluctant to combine it with a proper city trip and kept putting it off altogether. But then I had the chance to visit Auschwitz in the company of a friend and so I went.”

Confronting the past and painful memories often feel like the only way to do justice to those who have suffered. Though Auschwitz may not be a comfortable holiday, some feel it is necessary.


village close to Chernobyl

The site of the most disastrous nuclear power plant accident in history, Chernobyl has recently become a destination to visit and see the isolation and aftermath of the radioactive explosion that happened back in 1986. Though it happened over 30 years ago, experts expect to continue to see the effects of Chernobyl for another 70 odd years.

Dark tourism has only recently crept back to this corner of Ukraine due to the high radiation that could affect visitors. Not only did the disaster initially kill and injure people, but the poorly informed and inadequately equipped clean-up workers far exceeded the maximum exposure to the harmful chemicals and thus the human impact of the disaster is ongoing.

While people deal with grief very differently, finding public monuments to different types of suffering, personal in the case of the Taj Mahal, or of an entire generation in Auschwitz, is a way of accepting past experiences. It also helps people to face their own trauma, though in some cases, areas that have attracted dark tourism have become polluted with them.