On Robert Service’s The Cremation of Sam McGee

I have a lifelong relationship with Robert Service’s The Cremation of Sam McGee. It was one of my mother’s favourite bedtime stories because it was short. I most often requested a book called The Golden Eagle: It was fascinating, beautifully illustrated, and it took about forty-five minutes to get through. When my mother didn’t want to commit that kind of time to putting my sister and I to bed, though, she could always get me to agree to a reading of this poem.

I remember it was the first time I ever heard of Tennessee, and so my mother would have to explain it was someplace very warm –though not tropical– many hours’ drive to the south of our quiet street in Toronto. Then she would have to explain that the Dawson Trail was on the far side of Canada from where I lay, tucked in under my covers. It was desperately cold there, but more than eighty years ago thousands of people came from all over the world to search for gold.

This poem was my introduction to the idea of cremation. It was my first ghost story. It was the first time I heard of dog sleds, or ships trapped in the ice and abandoned. It might even have been the first story I ever heard where someone died.

I can think of many times this poem and I have crossed paths. When I was in grade five or six they would send me down to the grade one and two classroom to help the younger students with their reading assignments. The Cremation of Sam McGee was in their story books, and I remember reading it many times aloud to them, explaining what was happening along the way, just as my mother had for me. A story is always better with the context, I find.

Years later I remember a woman I was dating spotting a copy of it on my bookshelf and saying she knew the whole thing by heart. I was so pleased with this declaration that I asked her to recite it, and there followed one of the funniest and most awkward conversations I have ever had without being able to laugh aloud:

“There are strange things done… Um… Line?”

“In the midnight sun.”

“There are strange things done in the midnight sun by the men who… Uh… Line?”

“Moil.”

“Moil? That can’t be right.”

“It’s like toil.”

“Okay… By the men who moil for gold. The arctic trails have seen strange tales… Shoot… Line?”

This went on for much longer than you would believe possible. She really thought she had it, because she had given a speech about it in school many years before. To be fair, I shouldn’t have put her on the spot like that. She didn’t want to give up, and she didn’t want me to let her off the hook. We never made it as far as Sam McGee’s death, and that’s the last I’ll say about that.

I have recently finished Pierre Berton’s excellent book, Klondike, but I was disappointed that Robert Service was only mentioned twice in passing, and never in the context of his poetry outside of the end notes for the revised edition. There were tantalizing mentions of Lake Lebarge and steamships trapped in the ice, of dog teams and many queer tales that did indeed make my blood run cold, but it turns out Service missed the gold rush itself, so Berton rightfully did not include much about the man or his work in his otherwise exhaustive and thorough record of the last great gold rush.

Anyway, the book set my mind to work once more upon the poem and its setting, so I’ve decided to put it up on the blog, along with a wonderful reading of it by the late but immortal Johnny Cash (although he does use the word toil instead of moil). Enjoy!


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, “I’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 cursed 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
— Oh 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 crematoreum!”

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 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.

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