Is It Illegal to Die in Longyearbyen, Norway?
Located on the archipelago of Svalbard just 800 miles from the North Pole, the Norwegian village of Longyearbyen is reputed to be the world’s most northerly town. Deep within the Arctic Circle, the old coal-mining hub doesn’t see sunlight for about four months out of the year and is riddled with polar bears—and yet it’s home to approximately 2000 residents and sees upwards of 65,000 visitors each year.
According to the BBC, The Guardian, WIRED, Bustle, Men’s Health, The Sun, New York Post, IFL Science, Stuff, Ripley’s Believe it or Not, and a handful of other publications, a quirky law in Longyearbyen makes it illegal for any of those people to die. This colorful factoid is apparently even parroted by tour guides who live in the region.
But it’s not true.
There is no law in Longyearbyen making it illegal to die. “It is not forbidden to die in Longyearbyen,” Jovna Z. Dunfjell of the Svalbard Church tells Mental Floss in an email. “If that had been the case, how would you punish the act?”
The myth of a “forbidden to die” law appears to have emerged from the town’s unusual geography. Since Longyearbyen is so far off the beaten path, there are no elder care homes. The town has a small local hospital, but it’s not equipped to handle most serious medical cases.
“It is not forbidden to die in Longyearbyen ...” Svalbard’s Information Adviser Liv Asta Ødegaard wrote in an email to the editors of Wikipedia (yep, even Wikipedia was skeptical of this story). “All inhabitants in Longyearbyen have to keep an address on the main land, and when they get old and need help and nursing from the society, they have to move back to the main land.”
In other words, dying isn’t banned—it’s just uncommon. If you’re in danger of dying, the local hospital will send you to a southern hospital. (Though it’s obviously not something people can always prepare for: In 2015, an avalanche there killed two people.)
However, for Longyearbyen's unlucky dead, it is forbidden to be buried in a coffin. It’s so chilly in Longyearbyen that bodies barely decompose. (Urns are allowed, however.)
In fact, some century-old bodies in the local cemetery still contain rare remnants of the 1918 influenza virus that killed around 40 million people. In 1998, researchers visited the graveyard to gather samples of the virus’s genetic material. The findings were extremely valuable and have helped scientists better understand how to combat similar cases in the future. The research could save millions of lives.
(And if you're planning a trip, don't believe the rumors that this virus could spread to visitors. In an email, Svalbard’s Communication Adviser Terje Carlsen writes: “This is not an active virus and is not considered a threat.” Watch out for those polar bears, though!)