Dying in This Tiny Town Is Against the Law

Longyearbyen wants to stave off infections
By Neal Colgrass,  Newser Staff
Posted Mar 25, 2018 10:30 AM CDT
Here, Dying Is Illegal
The northern lights dance Feb. 29, 2008 over the Spitsbergen Hotel in Longyearbyen, Norway.   (AP Photo/John McConnico)

A recent anthrax outbreak in Russia seems to confirm what a Norwegian town already knew—that dying should remain illegal, WN.com reports. The Arctic town of Longyearbyen, where 2,100 people brave bitter temperatures, has outlawed death since 1950. The reason: Permafrost keeps bodies from decomposing in the town cemetery, so deadly viruses could survive and infect the living if the permafrost thaws. That appears to explain a 2016 anthrax outbreak in Siberia, where a heatwave melted permafrost and spread the bacterial disease from a dead reindeer, killing more than 2,300 others, the BBC reported at the time. Scientists have also found traces of the Spanish Influenza in corpses preserved by permafrost in Alaska and Longyearbyen. The latter find, in 1950, prompted the town's quixotic law.

Terminally ill residents are flown away to die, and those who die unexpectedly in Longyearbyen are interred elsewhere. The one exception is cremation, because the intense heat either destroys or deactivates viruses, Bustle reports. Residents are also encouraged to give birth elsewhere, because the territory—an archipelago called Svalbard that lies between Norway and the North Pole, the BBC notes—has only a small hospital. And Longyearbyen isn't the only place to outlaw death: Towns from Italy to France to Spain have done it, often due to cemetery overcrowding, the Guardian reports. The oddest anti-death law may be from 5th-century BC Delos, a Greek island where all tombs were dug up to satisfy the gods. "And it was proclaimed that in future, no deaths or births were to be allowed on the island," writes the historian Thucydides. (Svalbard is also known for its famous seed vault.)

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