Longyearbyen: the Norwegian town where it’s illegal to die.4 min read
Longyearbyen might just be one of the strangest and particular towns there is to visit in our planet. But that’s sure, it is the most Nordic part of the world. Here the streets have no name: streets in Longyearbyen are numbered, and residents require an “Alcohol Card” in order to purchase drinks. This, it seems, was a relic from the town’s old mining days where miners were given a “rations card”, which they used to get a drink or a bottle of beer.
It’s considered polite custom to leave your shoes (and guns!) at the door. There are signs in hotels, at the museum and the local library, asking visitors to leave their often snow or mud dirty shoes at the door. Some places also provide slippers! The same applies to the guns that many residents are required to have when leaving town. In fact, you can’t leave the city limits without a firearm. That’s due to the risk of interactions with the native wildlife, like polar bears.
On the the Svalbard Islands unemployment is heavily frowned upon. It’s possible really live in Longyearbyen if you have a job. Here, where cemeteries don’t exist! A law that “forbids dying” seems to come out of an absurd comedy, but it is the strange and modern reality of Longyearbyen, the most populous city of the Svalbard islands. Although it may seem crazy, the Scandinavian town is not the first in history where death is a taboo. During the era of Ancient Greece, in 426 BC, the island of Delos was purified by death: all corpses were exhumed and taken to the island of Renea, where they were buried in a huge common grave. Since then it was forbidden to die and give birth on the sacred island, and the sick and pregnant women were transferred to Renea. 20 centuries later, a similar policy was applied on the island of Itsukushima in Japan, banning all burials and exiling the elderly and terminally ill on the mainland.
Today, 78 degrees north of the equator, in the city of Longyearbyen, closer to the North Pole than in Oslo, the local cemetery is closed and funerals and burials are prohibited. Jan Christian Meyer, professor at the University of Science and Technology in Trondheim, explains: “If it looks like you are about to die, every effort will be made to send you to the mainland”.
Longyearbyen, one of the most northerly human settlements on the globe, is inhabited by about 2,000 people, and resembles an Arctic wonderland when the Northern Lights create midnight lights in the sky above the city. Here the sun disappears for four months of the year. Residents of Longyearbyen must surely look forward to the four month season known as the “polar night”. The sun disappears from view in late October and doesn’t re-emerge until early March.
The ground under the sky of this arctic splendor is anything but magical: Temperatures almost always below zero keep the soil in the permafrost state, freezing all that it contains.
In the 1950s the inhabitants discovered that the constantly frozen ground prevented corpses from decomposing, and many of the buried people remained practically intact. A few decades earlier, all over the world, the Spanish flu had been the deadliest pandemic in human history, with tens of millions of deaths and 5% of the population disappeared in just over two years. At least a dozen people also died at Svalbard, being buried in Longyearbyen cemetery.
In August 1998, 80 years after the Spanish flu pandemic ravaged the world, Dr. Kirsty Duncan of Windsor University led a team of scientists in the region. Examining the tissues of a person who died in the city at that time, they discovered that his body had preserved the Spanish flu virus from the time of his death.
To prevent new outbreaks of Spanish flu, or other diseases, since 1950 it was therefore forbidden to die and be buried in Longyearbyen.
In the event that a person reaches the conditions that suggest imminent death, he is transferred to the mainland hospitals, even in an airplane, where he can expire in a “free” way. In the case, however, not remote, of accidental death or “unpredictable”, the corpse is transferred to Norway and buried in open cemeteries. In the remote case in which a person wants their remains to remain on the Svalbard islands, one can be cremated and the ashes scattered on the island, but special permission from the city authorities is still required.
The corpses of the ancient cemetery have all been exhumed and cremated, and today there are only the ashes in their place.