Is It Really Illegal To Die On Svalbard?

One of the most common facts you have about Svalbard is that it is illegal to die there. But is this really true? Let’s take a closer look at the laws and guidelines for living and dying on Svalbard (also known as Spitsbergen).

There are no laws that prohibit you from dying on Svalbard, and this is not considered to be a crime or be illegal. But you will not be allowed to be buried on Svalbard due to the permafrost that prevents bodies from decaying, and people on the verge of death are usually flown to mainland Norway for better treatment.

Longyearbyen is the only inhabited city on Svalbard. Photo published with permission.

In other words, there is no law or anything that makes it illegal to die on Svalbard. The rumor comes from a BBC report that seem to have misunderstood some basic facts, and has since found it way to becoming a viral rumor on the internet.

You are usually sent back to mainland Norway if you get sick on Svalbard

The hospital on Svalbard is very basic, and will be unable to care for people long-term. Most cases of long-term issues or serious injuries require the patient to be flown back to mainland Norway for a regular treatment at one of the hospitals there.

There are also no retirement homes on Svalbard, and you are required by law to vacate the island if you are no longer able to take care of yourself. So any problem that prevents you from “taking care of yourself” is grounds to get you expelled from the island for a time being, so you can be forced to leave the island if you get injured to a point where you can no longer care for yourself.

Very few people do die on Svalbard, but accidents happen. Roughly one person get killed by polar bears every 10 years, and there are also other accidents and problems that lead to people dying on the island.

Polar bear
A polar bear. Photo published with permission.

What happens if you die on Svalbard?

If you do happen to die on Svalbard, your will be returned to mainland Norway. The general rule is that you are returned to your municipality to be buried, since you are required to have an address in another Norwegian municipality if you live on Svalbard.

As mentioned above, the reason why you cannot be buried on Svalbard is because the permafrost permeates the entire ground. This means that bodies will never decay, and usually will rise up from the group after a certain time due to repeated melting and freezing. It’s just not possible to properly bury people on the graveyard on Svalbard!

Not only is this not very nice, but it could also serve a big health hazard since bodies could spread diseases. There is an old cemetery on the island, but it’s been many years since it accepted new non-cremated bodies.

The cemetery on Svalbard. Photo by Ssu / CC BY-SA 4.0.
The cemetery on Svalbard. Photo by Ssu / CC BY-SA 4.0.

You can be cremated and have your ashes on Svalbard, but this require a permit from the Sysselmester. These are as far as I can tell usually granted, as long as you have a reason for wanting this.

Longyearbyen on Svalbard
Longyearbyen on Svalbard. Photo published with permission.

Can you give birth on Svalbard?

The hospital on Svalbard is not capable of delivering children, so you are required by law to vacate the island if you get pregnant. You have to leave Svalbard at least 21 days before the date of expected birth. However, there are a few births due to children arriving earlier than anticipated, so there are exceptions to this rule.

Most pregnant women choose to leave the island earlier in their pregnancy due to the fact that there is a higher risk of complication if you have an early birth on Svalbard. This is because the hospital there has no dedicated pediatricians for newborns and midwives.

Read more about giving birth on Svalbard here.

Homes on Svalbard
Homes on Svalbard. Photo by Peter Vermeij, published with permission.

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