It Is Against The Law To Die In This Town, For A Fairly Disturbing Reason

James Felton 21 Mar 2018, 15:32

The Arctic town of Longyearbyen in Norway's Svalbard Islands has taken the very unusual step of outlawing death.

Since 1950, no one has legally been allowed to die in the town. Even if you've lived there all your life, if you are terminally ill you will be flown off the island to live out the rest of your days. If you do happen to die suddenly in Longyearbyen, your body will be buried elsewhere. 

Why has the town taken this unusual step? To protect the other residents.

A beautiful town that no one ever dies in. Christopher Michel / Flickr; CC BY 2.0

In 1950 it was discovered that bodies within the town's cemetery were not decomposing, due to the permafrost. As a result, deadly viruses within the bodies could be kept alive, and possibly re-infect the living population as the permafrost thawed.

It sounds like a nightmare scenario, but it's one that has already played out elsewhere. In August 2016, there was an anthrax outbreak in northern Siberia, with one boy being killed and around 90 others hospitalized. Furthermore, 2,300 reindeer died from the disease. 

The most recent outbreak prior to this took place in 1941. The 2016 outbreak occurred during a heatwave in the region, leading officials to conclude that a reindeer killed by anthrax had thawed out, causing the virus to be released into the environment.

In 1950, officials in Longyearbyen were worried that a similar thing could happen with bacteria and viruses hiding in the residents of their graveyard.

Recently, samples of the Spanish Influenza were found in the lungs of victims of the disease that had been preserved in the permafrost of Alaska, stored there since 1918. Traces were also found in Longyearbyen itself, from a person who died during the 1917 outbreak.

Though it's unlikely that bodies in Longyearbyen thawing out would cause an outbreak of Spanish Flu, in 1998 a team of scientists studying the virus took extra precautions just in case. While extracting samples from the graves, they wore modified spacesuits and ensured that the tissue did not thaw out before it reached a specialized facility in the US.

It's unclear how big a risk viruses and bacteria in dead bodies pose to living residents (anthrax is especially hardy because it forms spores, which can last for over a century), but in 1950 the town decided to err on the side of caution and outlaw death anyway.

It remains illegal to die in Longyearbyen, in order to protect the living residents from outbreaks of lethal disease.

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