Last updated Nov. 15, 2012
“It is forbidden to die in the Arctic town of Longyearbyen. Should you have the misfortune to fall gravely ill, you can expect to be despatched by aeroplane or ship to another part of Norway to end your days. And if you are terminally unlucky and succumb to misfortune or disease, no-one will bury you here. The town’s small graveyard stopped accepting newcomers 70 years ago.” Duncan Bartlett, of the BBC News, wrote in his article on this little Arctic town in July of 2008.
Longyearbyen is the largest settlement and administrative center of Svalbard with roughly 1,500 inhabitants (as of 2008) and is
located on the Western coast of Spitsbergen, the largest island of the Svalbard archipelago. This group of islands lies between Norway’s Northern coast and the North Pole. Thus, it should come as no surprise that Longyearbyen’s prohibition on death was a necessity, as it was discovered bodies were not decomposing. Rather, these permafrost preserved remains were becoming a morbid curiosity. Scientists even removed tissue from a man who died there and were able to extract intact traces of the influenza virus he died from during an epidemic in 1917 (Duncan 2008; Sumitra 2012).
But Longyearbyen is not the only town with a prohibition on death! Itsukushima, Japan; Falciano del Massico, Italy; and Sarpourenx, Cugnaux, and La Lavandou France; and Lanjarón, Spain also have prohibitions on death.
The Japanese island of Itsukushima is considered a sacred place according to Shinto belief. And thus, in an attempt to maintain the sanctity of the island according to Sumitra, “no deaths or births have been permitted near the shrine [since 1878. Furthermore,] [p]regnant women nearing the date of delivery aren’t allowed there, nor are the elderly or the terminally ill” (2012). This may seem strange but this concept is not an entirely unfamiliar one. The island of Delos, birth place of the twins Apollo and Artemis, was considered a sacred and holy place by the ancient Greeks and various measures were taken to “purify” the island. In the 6th century BC, Peisistratus ordered that all graves within sight of the island’s temple be dug up and the bodies removed to locations on or beyond the perimeter (Whitaker, 2012). In addition, in the 6th century and under instruction from the Delphi Oracle, the island was purged of all dead bodies and it was decreed that no one shall be allowed to give birth or die there (Whitaker, 2012).
On the other hand, the reasons for prohibitions in France and Italy are not, shall we say, so lofty or practical in nature considering the issue they seek to address. Since March of 2012, according to Craggs, it has been illegal to die in Falciano del Massico, Italy. The reason: the village has no cemetery and has been feuding with the near by town that has one since 1964 when local boundaries were redrawn. Luckily for the residents of this village, the mayor is now seeking land to build a cemetery.
Meanwhile in France, in an ordinance posted in Sarpourenx (2008), residents were also forbidden to die. The mayor even threatened harsh consequences should any of the residents deliberately disobey and die. In addition to Sarpourenx, there are two other settlements in France that have created similar bylaws and/or ordinances, La Lavandou (2000) and Cugnaux (2007), for similar reasons. All three towns were denied permission to annex land and/or build on certain proposed areas (i.e. requests to expand their town cemeteries were denied). The Mayors’ claimed their responses were proportional to the absurdities of the laws and/or regulations obstructing the requests for land. As far as I could find, nothing has been resolved in these French towns with the exception of Cugnaux. And so it seems the residents of La Lavandou and Sarpourenx will not be as fortunate as their Italian counterparts.
And lastly, we have Lanjarón, Spain. It seems to have been the first town to outlaw death due to lack of space in the local cemetery back in 1999. Mayor Rubio blamed “inertia by his predecessors for the tight quarters at the cemetery” and he further insisted that the edict banning death was not about hubris, but, rather, a “response to politicians pestering him for a quick fix to the problem that dogged them for years” (Stiffs, 1999).
OH, but wait! Of course, there is at least one more. Mayor of Biritiba Mirim, Brazil, following in the footsteps of the French, filed a public bill to prohibit his some 28,000 residents from dying back in December of 2005 in response to federal regulations restricting new or expanding cemeteries in preservation areas (BBC News, 2005). The bill was not passed nor denied as far as I could find. Thus, this issue is still in suspense to my knowledge, but the government has agreed to a vertical cemetery from what I understand.
So, it seems banning death is becoming the trending political response to what has been called, by several of these mayors, absurd politics/law. Well, isn’t that just– oh, how shall I put it–productive. Religious beliefs and practical responses to environment and climate change aside, these prohibitions (France, Italy and Brazil) are laughable. Maybe I find it utterly ridiculous because I do not understand the nuances of French law or peculiarities of Italian pride. Or maybe I am missing an important environmental factor wrapped in these nuanced laws. Or maybe I am just missing the political and satirical brilliance that is the purpose of these bans. My question at the moment–to the mayors threatening harsh penalties on those who disobey their decrees– is just how exactly will those that break the prohibition be punished, that is if you do intend to directly punish those that break the prohibition and not indirectly punish them by fining their bereaved families? Will you not put a pillow beneath the poor souls’ heads? Will you remove stuffing from their pillows or their casket liners? Will you take their shoes and socks so they are forced to face the afterlife with an chronic case of cold feet all in an attempt to ensure that they duly pay for and regret their decision to disobey the law and die?
It makes me think of the Fellowship of The Rings when Gandolf tells the balrog that he shall not pass…
…Except in this case YOU SHALL NOT PASS takes on an entirely new meaning.
Bartlett, Duncan. (2008, Jul 12). “Why dying is forbidden in the arctic.” BBC News. Retrieved 14 Sept 2012 from <http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/programmes/from_our_own_correspondent/7501691.stm>
(2005, Dec). “Brazil City proposes ban on death.” BBC News. Retrieved 14 Sept 2012 from <http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/4527868.stm>
Craggs, Ryan. (2012, 13 Mar). “Death made illegal in Italy town Falciano del Massico.” The Huffington Post. Retrieved 14 Sept 2012 from <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/03/13/deaths-illegal-italy_n_1341120.html>
Dobbie, Andrew. (2008, Mar 5). “Cemetery full, mayor tells locals not to die.” Reuters. Retrieved 14 Sept 2012 from <http://web.archive.org/web/20110604150100/http://www.reuters.com/article/2008/03/05/us-election-cemetery-idUSL0552076620080305>
Henley, Jon. (2000, Sept 22). “Citizens live under law’s dead hand.” The Guardian. Retrieved 14 Sept 2012 fro <http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2000/sep/23/jonhenley>
Ionox. (2007, Nov 25). “Forbidden to die because lack of room.” Weird Globe News. Retrieved 14 Sept 2012 from <http://web.archive.org/web/20080528204947/http://weirdglobenews.com/forbidden_to_die_because_of_lack_of_room.html>
Johansen, B.F., et al. (2008, Jul). Longyearbyen – The Cruise Handbook for Svalbard. Norwegian Polar Institute. Retrieved 14 Sept 2012 from <http://cruise-handbook.npolar.no/en/isfjorden/longyearbyen.html>
Stiffs.com. (1999, Oct 2). Spanish mayor outlaws death. Retrieved 15 Nov 2012 from <http://web.archive.org/web/20080709215313/http://www.stiffs.com/backoct99.html>
Sumitra. “4 places where dying is not allowed.” (2012, Mar 16). Oddity Central: Collection Oddities. Retrieved 14 Sept 2012 from <http://www.odditycentral.com/pics/4-places-where-dying-is-not-allowed.html>
Whitaker, Alex. (2012). “Delos.” Retrieved 14 Sept 2012 from <http://www.ancient-wisdom.co.uk/greecedelos.htm>