There’s a legend that says it’s illegal to die in Longyearbyen, the northernmost city in the world.
“Here you have nothing between you and the spirits of the world,” one local says of the Svalbard capital. “Here you have to bend your head, because there is something bigger than you. Much, much bigger. What it is, I don’t know. I know only: it is, and I am.”
But – as Los Angeles-based filmmaker David Freid found out – it isn’t for religious or spiritual reasons that the questions of life, death and burial are so important here.
“We went to Longyearbyen because it’s supposedly illegal to die there, and found out that you just shouldn’t be buried there,” he says. “Because, as the permafrost melts… perhaps some well-preserved contagions will emerge from the frost like tiny zombies returned from a long nap.”
Thanks to an outbreak of Spanish Flu in 1918, there’s a tiny graveyard on Svalbard. Because of the permafrost, the bodies are buried in very shallow graves – a slight thaw and they could resurface. It’s definitely a concern, as are other contagions like the plague or anthrax. And these fears aren’t far fetched – a thawed reindeer carcass was to blame for a recent spate of anthrax illness in western Siberia, 75 years after the previous outbreak.
But, believe it or not, these diseases aren’t the most threatening thing the melting permafrost has to offer. As it melts, the thawed organic material inside will realease greenhouses gases, which will contribute to the very thing melting the permafrost in the first place: climate change. It’s a feedback loop, and one that this film shows beautifully.