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Is it illegal to die in Longyearbyen? If you do, you will not be buried here

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Posted February 28, 2018

Longyearbyen is a small town on the Spitsbergen in Norway. It is unique in many ways. For example, it is the world’s northernmost settlement of any kind with greater than 1,000 permanent residents. More than 2000 people live in this remote town, which is mostly busy with mining and scientific exploration. However, what people remember the most is unique laws that are in place in Longyearbyen.For example, it is said that it is illegal to die here.

Longyearbyen is a unique place – it is extremely beautiful, but conditions are harsh. Image credit: Mateusz War via Wikimedia(CC BY-SA 3.0)

When residents of Longyearbyen feel they are about to expire, they have to leave to the continental part of the country. And that is what people generally do – when they have to die, they go to continental Norway and die there as bizarre as it may sound. However, it is not exactly a law – it is not enforced in any way and it is more of a recommendation than a law. Reasons behind it are so serious that people don’t question it and simply leave if they feel that they are about to die.

The reason is that they cannot by buried in the island. Settlements in the Spitsbergen are quite old and people have died there. For example, in 1918 flu pandemic killed 5 % of world’s population. Calculations are not consistent, but the Spanish flu seems to have claimed 50-100 million lives in the world. This meant that 11 people, who died from this disease, have been buried in Longyearbyen. In 1950 it has been noticed that these bodies have not yet begun to decompose. Not only that, but they were being pushed up from their graves by frost heaving. Permafrost prevents bodies from decomposing naturally, which is why they are never buried here. A special permission could be given for ashes to be spread on the island, but people chose a simpler option of leaving to die somewhere else. Actually, it is somewhat of a normal course of life, because average temperature in Longyearbyen is extremely low and there is not much what to do for older people.

Longyearbyen has some unique laws, but ban on dying is not one of them. You still shouldn’t though. Image credit: Hylgeriak via Wikimedia(CC BY-SA 3.0)

It is not just creepy that mummified dead bodies remain preserved through decades. In 1998 scientists took samples from these remains and found that the Spanish flu is still present. Therefore, people are still afraid of the possible outbreak of the disease. No one remember that tragedy that happened a hundred years ago, but the history tells that many people died from this devastating flu. In fact, situation was so serious that newspapers in Germany, the United Kingdom, France, and the United States were banned from reporting situation in these countries. They were free to talk about the outbreak in Spain, which altered the information field so much that the disease got the name of Spanish flu, even though it had nothing to do with this country.

However, it is not like we are carrying Spanish flu now. Burying bodies in Longyearbyen is forbidden to protect future generations from our viruses that may not kill us, but cause problems in the future. There are other real interesting laws in Longyearbyen that are actually enforced.

For example, cats are banned because of the geographical location and preservation efforts. People can only buy fixed amount of alcohol per month, because it is difficult to deliver it to the island. Also, if you venture outside you have to carry a rifle. Polar bears have killed some people around this area.

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