A popular claim states that it is illegal to die in Longyearbyen, Norway. Today we’ll take a look at this claim, its origin, and a direct response we received from the Governor’s office to clear it all up.
The claim is not true.
Longyearbyen is a Norwegian city which is the administrative center of the Svalbard island chain. It has a population just over 2000, and most residents live there for an average of only about 6 years. The claim that it is “illegal” to die there has its origins in a story which discussed some of the limitations this community faces.
A 2008 BBC article reported that it is “forbidden to die” in Longyearbyen. This dramatic wording was used to highlight the challenges of this small Norwegian community in a BBC story entitled “Why Dying is Forbidden in the Arctic.” In this article, writer Duncan Bartlett accurately discussed many of the challenges faced by this island community, including how they handle the dead. Bartlett wrote of how the “no death policy” was implemented after it was discovered that bodies buried in a local cemetery were not decomposing in the island’s permafrost. That cemetery closed in 1930, meaning there were no longer accommodations for handling the deceased.
The details of the article were accurate and the writer used the word “forbidden” not “illegal.” The use of the word “forbidden” in 2008 has evolved into claims it is “illegal” to die there by popular internet “fact” pages. Since its publication, Bartlett’s text has been cited as the primary source for claims that it is “illegal” to die in Longyearbyen. This is simply not true.
We reached out to the Governor’s office regarding claims that it is “illegal” to die in Longyearbyen, and received the following response from Liv Asta Ødegaard, Senior Communication Advisor:
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. You can read more about the Government’s policy on Svalbard questions in the report to the Storting No. 22 (220-2009) (White paper on Svalbard)
The white paper referenced by the Governor’s Office does make several references to some of the community’s limitations. This paper states several times that Longyearbyen is not a “life-cycle society.” It further states:
Public services in key fields such as health and social services do not exist or are limited…The continuation of a non-life community has therefore been an important premise for the low level of taxation in the archipelago.
It is not illegal to die in Longyearbyen. The community simply does not have the resources to accommodate social services for the elderly or means for handling the dead.
- St.meld. nr. 22 (2008–2009) Svalbard (White Paper/PDF)
- Why dying is forbidden in the Arctic (Duncan Bartlett, BBC News: July 12, 2008)