The Cremation of Sam McGee by Robert W. Service


There are strange things done in the midnight sun

     By the men who moil for gold;

The Arctic trails have their secret tales

     That would make your blood run cold;

The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,

     But the queerest they ever did see

Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge

     I cremated Sam McGee.


Now Sam McGee was from Tennessee, where the cotton blooms and blows.

Why he left his home in the South to roam ’round the Pole, God only knows.

He was always cold, but the land of gold seemed to hold him like a spell;

Though he’d often say in his homely way that “he’d sooner live in hell.”


On a Christmas Day we were mushing our way over the Dawson trail.

Talk of your cold! through the parka’s fold it stabbed like a driven nail.

If our eyes we’d close, then the lashes froze till sometimes we couldn’t see;

It wasn’t much fun, but the only one to whimper was Sam McGee.


And that very night, as we lay packed tight in our robes beneath the snow,

And the dogs were fed, and the stars o’erhead were dancing heel and toe,

He turned to me, and “Cap,” says he, “I’ll cash in this trip, I guess;

And if I do, I’m asking that you won’t refuse my last request.”


Well, he seemed so low that I couldn’t say no; then he says with a sort of moan:

“It’s the cursèd cold, and it’s got right hold till I’m chilled clean through to the bone.

Yet ’tain’t being dead—it’s my awful dread of the icy grave that pains;

So I want you to swear that, foul or fair, you’ll cremate my last remains.”


A pal’s last need is a thing to heed, so I swore I would not fail;

And we started on at the streak of dawn; but God! he looked ghastly pale.

He crouched on the sleigh, and he raved all day of his home in Tennessee;

And before nightfall a corpse was all that was left of Sam McGee.


There wasn’t a breath in that land of death, and I hurried, horror-driven,

With a corpse half hid that I couldn’t get rid, because of a promise given;

It was lashed to the sleigh, and it seemed to say: “You may tax your brawn and brains,

But you promised true, and it’s up to you to cremate those last remains.”


Now a promise made is a debt unpaid, and the trail has its own stern code.

In the days to come, though my lips were dumb, in my heart how I cursed that load.

In the long, long night, by the lone firelight, while the huskies, round in a ring,

Howled out their woes to the homeless snows— O God! how I loathed the thing.


And every day that quiet clay seemed to heavy and heavier grow;

And on I went, though the dogs were spent and the grub was getting low;

The trail was bad, and I felt half mad, but I swore I would not give in;

And I’d often sing to the hateful thing, and it hearkened with a grin.


Till I came to the marge of Lake Lebarge, and a derelict there lay;

It was jammed in the ice, but I saw in a trice it was called the “Alice May.”

And I looked at it, and I thought a bit, and I looked at my frozen chum;

Then “Here,” said I, with a sudden cry, “is my cre-ma-tor-eum.”


Some planks I tore from the cabin floor, and I lit the boiler fire;

Some coal I found that was lying around, and I heaped the fuel higher;

The flames just soared, and the furnace roared—such a blaze you seldom see;

And I burrowed a hole in the glowing coal, and I stuffed in Sam McGee.


Then I made a hike, for I didn’t like to hear him sizzle so;

And the heavens scowled, and the huskies howled, and the wind began to blow.

It was icy cold, but the hot sweat rolled down my cheeks, and I don’t know why;

And the greasy smoke in an inky cloak went streaking down the sky.


I do not know how long in the snow I wrestled with grisly fear;

But the stars came out and they danced about ere again I ventured near;

I was sick with dread, but I bravely said: “I’ll just take a peep inside.

I guess he’s cooked, and it’s time I looked”; … then the door I opened wide.


And there sat Sam, looking cool and calm, in the heart of the furnace roar;

And he wore a smile you could see a mile, and he said: “Please close that door.

It’s fine in here, but I greatly fear you’ll let in the cold and storm—

Since I left Plumtree, down in Tennessee, it’s the first time I’ve been warm.”


There are strange things done in the midnight sun

     By the men who moil for gold;

The Arctic trails have their secret tales

     That would make your blood run cold;

The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,

     But the queerest they ever did see

Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge

     I cremated Sam McGee.




I was first exposed to ‘The Cremation of Sam McGee’ in my Grade 7 year during art class, when my teacher told us to visualize and recreate the landscape of this poem. Ever since then, Service had imprinted his poem in my memory due to the brilliant descriptions and strange humor that is prevalent throughout the piece.. ‘The Cremation of Sam McGee’ is written in Iambic heptameter, with rhyming couplets and an internal rhyme within each verse.

The poem tells of two men who seek gold in the bitter Yukon weather. Sam, who the speaker is travelling with, knows he is about to die from the cold and makes the speaker promise to cremate his corpse as he cannot stand to be buried in the frozen ground. The speaker is forced to fulfill his promise and dutifully cremates his body. However, as the first stanza of the poem suggests, the speaker witnesses an extremely queer sight after cremating Sam as he discovers that Sam is alive and grinning inside the boiler that his body was cremated in.

The story is very strange, as stated in the poem itself (twice- at the beginning and again at the end), and the content can cause confusion to some readers. It tells of the integrity that the speaker has towards fulfilling his friend’s last promise, but the poem does not finish in the sense that it does not tell us how the speaker reacts to seeing the strange sight of his friend’s resurrection. Perhaps Service wanted the reader to react for themselves and imagine that they were in the speaker’s position– he ends the poem with a repeat of the first stanza to highlight how queer this event was.

My opinion is that the speaker’s mind was slowly deteriorating during his struggle to find a crematorium. In the piece itself, “And I’d often sing to the hateful thing, and it hearkened with a grin.” shows that the speaker was even seeing Sam’s corpse grin, proving that perhaps extreme weather conditions and stress had affected the speaker’s mental abilities. The fact that the speaker saw Sam warming up in the boiler that was supposedly for cremating his body may have been a simple hallucination on the speaker’s part, due to exhaustion or a lack of grub.

I think Service was brilliant– he was able to craft such an eloquent piece that manages to tell a vivid story of the Klondike Gold Rush. The reader is able to physically feel the harshness of the Arctic wind and emotionally experiences the struggle that the speaker goes through to fulfil a friend’s last wish. Although the story itself is quite saddening, Service keeps it humorous and silly with a surprising plot twist at the end. I definitely understand why ‘The Cremation of Sam McGee’ is so well-known and agree with the fact that it is a classic poem suitable for all ages.

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