A place where dying is not allowed
By José Azel
When I first learned of Svalbard’s unusual laws, one of which is that
no one is allowed to die there, my wife and I made plans to visit and
learn. Unfortunately, the COVD-19 pandemic put those plans on hold. We
finally made it to Svalbard in June of 2022.
Svalbard is a Norwegian archipelago in the Artic Ocean midway between
continental Norway and the North Pole. Svalbard is the northernmost
year-round settlement in the world and its capital, Longyearbyen, is
home to 2,400 people from over fifty countries. Having visited
southernmost Antarctica in 2019, it made perfect sense to us to make
northernmost Svalbard our next travel destination.
Svalbard has been part of the Kingdom of Norway since 1925. However,
administratively it is not part of any Norwegian county. It is an
unincorporated area administered by a governor appointed by the
Norwegian government and subject to the special jurisdiction of the
Svalbard Treaty (1920), and the Svalbard Act (1925). These treaties
established Svalbard as a free zone and demilitarized economic zone.
Svalbard’s permafrost and year-round low temperatures made it ideal
for the installation of the Global Seed Vault which stores nearly a
million seeds from across the globe as a reserve in case of a global
catastrophe. The warmest temperature ever recorded in Longyearbyen was
70.3 F and the coldest -51.3 F. Winter brings three to four months of
night, and temperatures often dip below that breathtaking point where
Fahrenheit equals Celsius at minus 40 degrees.
Longyearbyen’s multi-ethnicity is due to the fact that it is an open
border society where citizens of any country are welcomed to settle in
Svalbard without a visa as long as they have a job and a place to
live. The Svalbard Treaty includes a unique nondiscrimination clause
requiring that no distinction be made between Norwegians and
The treaty also requires that Svalbard must not tax its residents more
than the minimum needed for government operations. Currently this is
an eight percent income tax— well below Norway’s nearly forty percent
tax. In Svalbard’s unique version of gun control, anyone who leaves
the city limits must carry a rifle for protection. This is because
Longyearbyen’s human population of 2,400 is complimented by a
population of some 3,000 polar bears.
Most interestingly, in the 1950s, when scientists exhumed corpses of
those who died in the 1918 flu pandemic, it was discovered that the
bodies had been preserved by Svalbard’s permafrost and had not
decomposed. Scientists were then able to retrieve live samples of the
deadly virus from the preserved bodies. Since then, dying in
Longyearbyen has not been allowed given that there are no options for
burial. Residents close to death are flown to the Norwegian mainland
to live out the remainder of their days.
Not only is dying not allowed, but neither is giving birth. Pregnant
women within a few weeks of their due date must travel to the mainland
to give birth.
But this is not a travel column, and Svalbard is certainly one of the
world’s most inhospitably environments. I bring Svalbard up because
there is much we can learn from this audacious society. A key
political proposition for us in the United States today revolves
around the questions of: In what numbers, and on what political and
cultural terms should peoples from other countries be allowed to come
to the United States?
In Svalbard, societal membership is based on residence and consent,
and not on birth or descent.
Faced with the extreme difficulties of this environment residents from
over fifty different countries must embrace new views over their old,
For 100 days each year Svalbard’s residents are plunged into a
darkness they call their polar night. Living in Svalbard must be like
E. L. Doctorow’s description of writing “… it is like driving in the
night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you
can make the whole trip that way.”
To live in a place like Svalbard one must detach past from present and
welcome the discomfort of doubt over the comfort of conviction. This
should be our intellectual aspiration on immigration.
* * * * *
José Azel left Cuba in 1961 as a 13 year-old political exile in what
has been dubbed Operation Pedro Pan — the largest unaccompanied child
refugee movement in the history of the Western Hemisphere. He is
currently dedicated to the in-depth analyses of Cuba’s economic,
social and political state, with a keen interest in post-Castro-Cuba
A place where dying is not allowed