Is It Illegal to Die in This Norwegian Town?

Governments have been known to criminalize things such as cursing, making jokes of national leaders with funny names, and even time travel movies. Rules and regulations have become so cumbersome that it seems the only way to escape them is through death. Now it seems even that escape route has been blocked with word that a Norwegian town has criminalized dying. Are the reports true?

Longyearbyen is located on the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard, about midway between mainland Norway and the North Pole, The 2,000 or so residents of the community are a hearty bunch, flourishing in a place where the average summer highs are typically 37-45 °F (3-7 °C), and the average winter highs are 12-9 °F (−11 to −13 °C). They endure 121 days — from October 27 to February 14 — without seeing any sunlight.

The laws of this icy place are quite practical. A recent study estimated more polar bears in the area than there are people, so one of the laws on the books requires anyone who ventures outside to be armed with a rifle.

Another example of the practicality of the community’s statutes can be seen in the way it deals with death: it prohibits it. Well, at least that’s the way it was the presented by the BBC under the breathless headline, “Why dying is forbidden in the Arctic.” The account triggered an endless chain of stories from other news agencies, repeating the claim that dying was forbidden. A more careful reading of the original BBC report — not to mention the actual laws — tells a slightly different story.

While the statutes do not make dying illegal, they do significantly complicate matters for those who have to tend to the dead. Since 1950, no burials have been permitted. There is good reason for this. The frigid temperatures essentially preserve all entombed corpses, making decomposition practically impossible. When bodies from the 1918 flu pandemic were disinterred in 1950, scientists found still-viable strains of the flu present in the frozen corpses.

NOTE: There is no word as to whether evidence of man flu has been detected among the frozen deceased, but if it is there, you’ll want to avoid it’s documented severe effects.

As for the claim that death itself has been criminalized, the government rolls its eyes at the notion. Liv Asta Ødegaard, Senior Communication Advisor of the Svalbard Governor’s Office says, “It is, of course, not illegal to die in Longyearbyen, but it is the policy of the Government that Longyearbyen not become a ‘cradle-to grave’ community. That means, for instance, that we have no public welfare service for elderly people in Longyearbyen.”

So, to put the matter to rest, dying isn’t banned—it’s just uncommon and strongly discouraged. An added disincentive is the absence of long-term care and medical facilities for the elderly, disabled, and terminally ill. If you’re in danger of dying, the local hospital will send you to a hospital on the mainland. Worst case scenario: the deceased may be cremated and interred in an urn.

If your vacation plans include a trip to Longyearbyen, but you’ve been putting it off for fear that you might depart this life and enter eternity with a criminal record, this will hopefully give you some comfort and allow you to move forward with your plans. Just to be on the safe side, though, don’t forget your rifle, in case you want to go for a stroll among the polar bears.

Strangely, it seems that death is a popular topic here at Commonplace. For more fun facts about death, be sure to keep reading.

We also seem to keep finding strange laws. If that interests you, read about some of these stupid laws or fun facts about laws, lawyers, and court cases.

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