Register Sunday | March 18 | 2018

Death Tourism

The Maisonneuve Decanter

In setting out to take apart “death tourism,” we’ve tried to stay clear of common examples of the trade: the instantly recognizable watchtowers of Auschwitz and Birkenau, the gas-lit spookiness of London’s Jack the Ripper walking tours, the viewing platform and observation wall at Ground Zero in New York. Instead, we’ve scouted out what we believe to be some stranger destinations that require a map, money and a morbid turn of mind.

Death Tourism
Colombia, Belgium, Switzerland, the Netherlands

Maisonneuve’s crack team of editors thought they had coined the term “death tourism” in a marathon meeting in September, only to discover that the Guardian, CNN and Pravda had already come up with their own definition. It seems that death tourists are terminally ill patients from across the world who travel to countries with legalized euthanasia so that they may commit suicide without committing a crime. In Zurich, the group Dignitas has been known to open its doors to foreigners seeking such a service. The Italian firm Exit, based in Turin, reportedly furnishes its clients with one-way tickets to the Netherlands, where they are placed on a list for voluntary assisted death. Other such death-tourism hot spots include Belgium and Colombia. 

United Flight 93 Crash Site
Shanksville, Pennsylvania

This small town 130 kilometres outside of Pittsburgh welcomes about a thousand tourists every week. Many of the 260 residents here can still remember the rumble of Flight 93 hitting the ground in a nearby field on September 11, 2001, killing all forty-four people aboard. A troop of local volunteers takes turns standing watch and answering questions at the crash site. In preparation for a permanent memorial, members of the Somerset County Historical Center collect and display items—from original paintings to wedding rings—which friends, relatives and grateful compatriots have left behind as tokens of remembrance. 

Atlantic Ocean

The diving company Deep Ocean Expeditions charges adventurers $35,950 US for a plunge into the chilly Atlantic to contemplate the grave of fifteen hundred unfortunate souls. Those who can afford the trip travel from Newfoundland to the mother ship, the Akademik Keldysh, where they dive by threes in mini-submarines down to the site of the wreck. The Titanic lies where it came to rest on April 15, 1912: about six hundred kilometres southeast of Newfoundland and over twelve thousand feet below the surface of the Atlantic.

The Killing Fields
Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Cambodia’s genocidal history has been scrutinized in Western films and books. Building on that interest, the country has opened its doors to tourists. You can spend your morning at a gun range blowing up water buffalo with a “shoot airplane gun” (bovines are $75 US a pop) and in the afternoon take a tour over the dirt of the “killing fields” of Choeung Ek, still littered with remains. Also open daily is the Tuol Sleng genocide museum, formerly known as Security Office 21. Over seventeen thousand inmates arrived; only seven left alive.

Gangland Tour
Chicago, Illinois

The Windy City has been the venue of much violent death over the years; even in Chicago, though, the gangland activities of the Prohibition years stand out. Bus tours take tourists around the more gruesome sites for $24 US ($18 for children). See George “Bugs” Moran’s favourite hit spots, the movie theatre where John Dillinger was betrayed by the Lady in Red and, in a grassy area next to a senior citizens home, the site of the Valentine’s Day Massacre of 1929, where the seven victims of Al Capone’s conquest of the underworld are commemorated by seven bushes.

Anne Frank House
Amsterdam, Netherlands

On the Prinsengracht, an otherwise quiet canal street, tourists line up for hours year-round for a glimpse inside the Anne Frank House (tickets: †6.50). Visitors can see how the Franks’ protectors hid the entrance to the family’s secret annex with a hinged bookcase. In the three-room hideout, Anne’s favourite postcards still float eerily on a near-empty wall. Downstairs, there are very clean institutional washrooms and a cafeteria that serves Jell-O with whipped cream.

Mount Carmel
Waco, Texas

It’s just a dusty seventy-seven-acre block of Texas grassland, but tourists still find their way to the outskirts of Waco to see what remains of the Branch Davidian sect’s collapsed compound. It was here, in 1993, that David Koresh and his followers engaged in a fifty-one-day standoff with American authorities. About eighty Davidians died in the devastating fire that ended the crisis; their pictures hang on the wall of a ramshackle visitor centre, next to books about the event and a charred doll plucked from the wreckage. Some of the few remaining Davidians hand out sect literature nearby.

Taj Mahal
Agra, India

This building on the shore of the Yamuna River in Agra, India, is actually a colossal sepulchre, built by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan after the death in childbirth of his beloved wife Mumtaz Mahal. Construction began in 1632 and lasted some twenty years. Twenty thousand workers laboured on this ambitious project, along with an international cast of master craftsmen: a mason from Baghdad, a double-dome expert from Persia and an inlay specialist from Delhi. Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore memorably described the Taj Mahal as “a teardrop on the cheek of time.”