A reminiscence of my father

The Cremation of Sam McGee

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.

—Robert W. Service


My father was a great fan of Robert W. Service, and taught me as a boy to enjoy Songs of a Sourdough and other books of Service’s poetry. There was a time when I knew ‘The Cremation of Sam McGee’ by heart.

A couple of years ago, after the inexcusable schemings and bunglings of my stepbrother had landed my parents in what is rather over-hopefully called an ‘assisted living facility’, I had occasion to remember those verses. I used to visit my father fairly often then – I had a working car, and he was still well enough that he was glad to see me, and talk to me (as well as he still could; his speech was the first thing to go), and we would go on excursions together. The place where he was living was very near the northeastern edge of Calgary, so I would take him on drives in the country just to the east. I believe it did him good, and at any rate slowed his decline for a time. He grew up on a farm in the Peace River country of northern British Columbia, and seeing fields and barns, and cattle in the pastures, and things of that kind, brought back pleasant memories and also helped him to exercise his mind.

A few times we went as far afield as Beiseker, about half an hour’s drive northeast of the city, and stopped for lunch at a little restaurant just off the highway. It was on one of those trips that we discovered (per commemorative roadside plaque) that the real Sam McGee was buried in Beiseker. William Samuel McGee was a road-builder and occasional prospector whom Service met in the Yukon. He was from Ontario, not Tennessee, and of course the story of his cremation is a vintage American-style tall tale (as Mark Twain would say) from Alpha to Omaha. He spent the last three decades of his life in a curious state: both famous and ridiculous, through no fault of his own, for something that never happened. Millions of people knew him as a fictitious character; all too many, I dare say, were surprised to find him real, and disappointed to find that he had never been cremated, for all that. I suspect he could have sympathized rather well with Christopher Robin Milne. At any rate, later in life he went to live in Beiseker with his daughter, and that is where he died.

My father was as delighted as I was to find all this out. It was as if we had discovered the actual location of Jack‘s beanstalk, or the end of the rainbow where the leprechaun kept his gold. We had a good talk about it, in the style we had to adopt at that time, where I would suggest words for him until he approved of one, whenever he got stranded in mid-sentence by the holes that age and illness had left in his vocabulary.

Unfortunately, the sequel was not so happy. I never did carry out my intention of taking Songs of a Sourdough with me on a visit and reading the poem to him. Today I visited him, very possibly for the last time, in hospital where he is being treated (not too assiduously) for his pneumonia. He has spent most of his time sleeping in recent months, and today he did not wake up at all, though my mother (who has, I am sad to say, a positive gift for doing the wrong thing) pawed at him and cried over him and bawled in his ear, trying to get a response. (She also managed to unhook the tubes from her nose – she is on oxygen now, a recent development, but an inevitable one after forty-odd years of reckless cigarette smoking – and set off the alarm on her oxygen tank, which brought the hospital staff running into the room.) He looked weak, exhausted, and terribly frail – almost literally skin and bone – and the most prominent sign of life he showed was a series of feeble spasms, when, as I believe, he was trying to cough but did not have the strength.

Even if my father had been awake and fit to hear me, I did not think it would have been good conversation to remind him of a poem about a man dying and being cremated – even if he did come out alive in the end. So ‘Sam McGee’ must go on the scrapheap of experiences I intended to revisit in life, but now never shall. (Service himself had a similar problem. As the plaque in Beiseker informed us, he tried to attend McGee’s funeral, but there was some trouble about the trains and he did not arrive in time.)

Though my father is not yet dead, I have been mourning him for a year now. I shall always miss him.


  1. My heartfelt condolences. It is strange to lose your loved ones in so slow a way; it does not seem right, somehow, to lose them before you lose them.

    I am glad of your story, to read it, and to know you shared these things with your father.

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