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The powerful attraction of 'thanatourism'

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A cross with a message is planted in the ground at Kanchanaburi War Cemetery in Thailand.   © Reuters

The 70th anniversary of the end of World War II stirs memories of the conflict sites I have visited over the years: the landing beaches of Normandy, the Kohima battlefield in northeast India, Hiroshima's Atomic Bomb Dome, the Death Railway in Thailand. And I try to probe why I and millions of others -- Westerners and Asians, young and old -- are so powerfully drawn to grounds of suffering and death.

     Veterans and relatives of the deceased come to honor and remember. Casual sightseers drop by because their guidebook insists that a certain site is a "must-see." History and heritage buffs want to get close to what they have studied. After all, even secondhand, war is probably the greatest human drama. Visitors flock to Verdun and other World War I battlefields where millions perished, while Compiegne, where peace was sealed at the end of that war, is hardly a tourism hot spot.

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