The Cremation of Sam McGee

By Robert W. Service
spoken by Johnny Cash

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.

53 responses to “The Cremation of Sam McGee

  1. Wow, he actually kept that promise. If I was Sam Mcgee, I would not have my friend carry such a promise.

  2. Keeping a promise is a difficult thing to do. I respect Sam McGee’s friend for keeping his promise even in the cold atmosphere. Johnny Cash’s voice was an excellent touch to the poem as well.

  3. Johnny Cash<3 He has a very enthralling voice. The symbolism with his desire to be created shows that in death there is honor. The word selection and flow of the poem drags you in to the scene and makes it a part of your reality. Through every bit, it is like you are hanging on ever so slightly to get to the end.

  4. I sort of wished that i wrote my essay on this instead! oh well, it was still a great poem. Johnny Cash provided the right ambience for this poem as well. His voice sort of puts you into the poem. Excellent.

  5. “Now a promise made is a debt unpaid.” This kind of great story of camaraderie is also often told in War time tales and this poem successfully capture the spirit of friendship that last after one’s decease. Also, the narrator uses a very vivid voice that help convey the psychological state that the author was in.

  6. Even when “The Cremation of Sam McGee” is being funny, it never gets very far away from the theme of death. It’s all about the reality of death, how it happens, and how you deal with the aftermath. Service takes us through all the stages of death and dying.

  7. Johnny Cash gives this poem an authentic air to it. Also, the fraternity and loyalty that the firend feels towards keeping his word is that much more believable. These bonds between working men still exist in America today and we should strive to keep them alive.

  8. There used to be such weight attached to a man’s word. Now-a-days people can barely keep a promise even if it’s written on paper and legally binding. Americans seem to have given up on integrity. Sam McGee’s partner had no reason to keep his promise other than the fact that he said he would. No one would have held him accountable for not abiding by the wishes of Sam McGee after his death. He was dead and there was no one else around to witness his request. It is quite respectable that Sam’s partner stuck to his promise even though it was a difficult journey.

  9. I would think that anyone given a promise to keep like the one Sam McGee asked, would be a difficult one. And for Adam McGee to be put to rest in the warmth of a fire. Also, greatly read by Johnny Cash.

  10. Sometimes keeping a promise is difficult, but fulfilling that commitment is what makes a good friend. And that other man should have really trusted Sam because the promise that Sam had to do was a very difficult one. I respect people who can keep such hard promises, because you know you can trust someone like that.

  11. The fact that this man kept his promise to Sam McGee is so respectable. I mean no one would want to do what he did but the fact that was Sam’s last request when he was alive and someone actually did this for him means so much for an individual. Now his friend, or stranger won’t have any or as much guilt of not using up the time he was alive to share with him because he can deal with his death in a happier way then be sad about it because he knows that Sam left the way he wanted to go.

  12. Keeping a promise is probably the hardest thing any human being can do. In this poem you see Sam McGee’s friend go to extreme lengths to keep his promise. Adding Johnny Cash’s voice to narrate it was an excellent touch that help keep me focused.

  13. Its was nice seeing this man keep his promise to somebody he doesn’t even know. He could have just forgot about him and saved himself but he didn’t. If only that happens a lot in life.

  14. it was a good poem, still in shock for what he went through just to cremate sam McGee’s body. that is a man worth respecting, made it easier to understand with johnny cash’s voice. very descriptive and good poem.

  15. An interesting poem, I enjoyed listening to Johnny Cash read the story , it was a great way to enhance the poem. The descriptions in the poem are extremely painted and captures the reader.

  16. The tone in a poem says a lot, and this tone is perfect with the poem. Its loyalty towards Sam is so pure. This poem says a lot about the narrators personality.

  17. Awesome poem! Such a sad story concluded by a hint of humor that left a faint smile. Yes it’s slow, building up if you will, to the moment where that promise all made sense in the end. And Johnny Cash’s narrative was the perfect touch to this old time poem.

  18. This poem was about keeping a promise to a friend. I really like the narrative voice of Johnny Cash because it was not too fast but it was just right. Although Sam McGee was dead by nightfall his companion did not leave his body for the wolves. He carried his body “dead weight” until he found a place to fulfill his promise. That is what I call a true friend.

  19. Whether the other man was his friend or not, him respecting Sam enough to keep his promise, says a lot about him. With everything that was going on, with that cold weather, one could leave and go their way, but this man held his word. I really respect this man for keeping his word.

  20. The voice of Johnny was perfect for this poem. It the point that it was read slow, gives a person time to truly think about the issue at hand with Sam. One could almost feel the cold that surrounded the two men. As beautiful as winter is, it is also dangerous when it comes to humans. Sam wanting to be cremated symbolizes more than one thing. If he were to die, him being cremated meant not laying on the ground in an undignified way, or when the winter passed, his body withering with the elements or even desecrated by animals. Excellent poem, and a good critical thinking poem.

  21. I like this poem. It gives a sense of the American frontier during much of it’s expansion. Many of the winters were deadly to the pioneers and even those that had a stable home were not sure to survive most of the winters.

  22. People who live and work away from their hometowns often feel very homesick and uncomfortable. If people only work on the basis of making money and not on the basis of comfort, then they will have to wait for death to be truly happy.

  23. This is an outrageous story from the American Frontier. America is full of amazing and rich tall tales. Even the American Frontier told stories about Zombies.

  24. This poem symbolizes all of the stories we don’t hear from the people that work away from most of society. These people live under harsh conditions and under harsh weather. I felt like Sam was not happy he longed for a better life away from those harsh conditions, the snow symbolizing that harsh life. He wanted warmth and a different life, that is why he was asked to be cremated.

  25. First of all thank you so much Ms. Kollitz for posting this slow poem with the voice of Johnny Cash. It is interesting that the stories that certain land has. Most of the people do not really know how their own city was built. The poem also teaches that we have to be men and women of word. Once a promise has been giving to someone it is debt.

  26. I was reading some of the comments and noticed a few people didn’t like the slow tone used on the poem. I think the slow tone was perfect. This is a dark poem and it simply wouldn’t have the same meaning if narrated in a faster tone.

  27. This felt kind of like a ghost tale you would tale around a camp fire. It had great build up and i really didn’t see the end coming. this was probable the best story telling iv seen in a poem, it really got you into the story and moved at a perfect pace.

  28. Im not the biggest fan of slow poems but I think its because I lack patience. Even though this poem was slow the narrator, Johnny Cash, is a perfect fit for this poem. He is really able to speed things up with the wording but its still slow.

  29. I never have enough patience to listen to poems that are moderately slow. “The Cremation of Sam McGee” was read out loud by Johnny Cash and was read nicely enough to withstand the rate of speed it was read.

  30. Being someone who loves the cold for recreational activities, I hardly ever thought about the people who must work in colder climates, suffering from frostbite, very little companionship living in cabins or little huts in the middle of nowhere; and having a good companion can be the difference between life and death.

  31. “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”

    Johnny Cash’s voice was a perfect fit for this poem.
    I like the images of the harsh weather, isolation, and mystery.
    A bit spooky.

  32. People don’t know what lies underneath the soil we live in, the secrets, the tragedies, the adventures, and the stories that are lost in history. The poem teaches us that a promise is a debt unpaid and even though you might have made that promise without really taking the time to think it through it is something you can’t back down once you promised it, because that is what a good friend does.

  33. Listening to this poem puts me to sleep because Johnny Cash’s voice is slow and deep, but reading the poem actually helped me get a better understanding of the poem. The friend is trying to make Sam McGee’s last wish come true by cremating him. Robert W. Service does a great job with the description of his surroundings which help the reader make a picture of what he is talking about.

  34. I’m not a big fan of this poem because it was a bit too dull and slow for me. However, the story being told in this poem was good. I believe someone else should’ve narrated this poem because Johnny Cash was not energetic enough.

  35. I recognized, immediately, the rugged growl of Johnny Cash as we listenened to his recitation of ‘The Cremation of Sam McGee”. I was attentive and tried hard to follow along and understand the meaning behind the poem. I find it easier to grasp when I can read along as I am listenting.

  36. I have never heard Johnny Cash recite poetry. So beautiful, this to me represents the bond of two men, beautiful and a promise kept to a dead friend. This bond till death reminds me of brotherhood a bond men share through life and death an ubroken bond to tae care of your brother till the end.

  37. I really dont like slow poems! But, I like this poem. It contained an interesting story above all things. The speed met the requirements for this poem.

  38. This poem is very soft and greatly spoken. This makes me feel like i am there with the man and i feel the emotion in the poem.

  39. It was a very calm and relaxing poem. I liked it

  40. The poem was well read by Johnny cash. This was very emotional to me since promises mean a lot,especially by making them a promise by action. This really warms my Heart to know that even if it’s painful to do something you wouldn’t want to do, but since it’s a promise it should be done.

  41. even though i really liked to listen to this poem i still think that in a way it is kind of disturbing. but since i have been camping in the snow before i could kinda relate to the need for warmth.

  42. Excellent voice by Johnny Cash, he really creates the mood of the environment allowing the listener to create vivid images. Just like singing, execution is equally important in a poem and Johnny did it so well.

  43. I’ve always loved the topic of western expansion and there found this poem very enjoyable.

  44. this was a great poem because the voice that was used was perfect for the feel of the poem which was on a very important topic of western expansion.

  45. taking over lands, this was a great time in america only because expansionism is what made america, america. great poem truly enjoyed it.

  46. The draw of exploration and promise are so captivating in this story. The poem is bueatiful and so descriptive. While it can be viewed as tragic it is very fulfilling in the concept.

  47. Of what I understand from this story poem is the value and meaning of friendship, and also about a promise that a friend made to another which is dying. So, when the narrator finds his friend dead he carries the body on a sled to a lake and cremates him, keeping his promise to friend. However, in some part of the poem I was not sure if the narrator was using humor with the purpose of saving the poem from a tragic ending, or that he was hallucinating about his dead friend being alive because he was traumatized. Anyways, I really enjoyed the poem specially the audio, great job by Johnny Cash!

  48. I love Johnny Cash and i think his voice fit in perfect for this poem. Cash brought the poem another mood. Even though it is a dark poem, it is a good one and Johnny Cash makes it that much better.

  49. I love the Western tone to his voice because it sets the tone for the atmosphere. His voice makes you feel like your actually right there walking arctic trails in the cold strolling along.

  50. This is a very heart felt poetry that a given word is worth more than its weight in gold. It is the idea that one is willing to make right, no matter the circumstances or obstacles. It rare these days that a person can honor his word or make good on it. The gratification that takes place in this poetry is simply magic. I also wonder, if this is a lost transaction in society today? Are people today willing to go out of their way to make a situation right or simply ignore it. It seems the ladder is all to frequent, but knowing that such people do exist.

  51. I feel so cold, but the night in this poem must be beautiful. Stars dancing, purely white snow, and quiet but huskies’ voice. Sam McGee would be happy in the fire because he is finally warm. This is beautiful poem.

  52. I love this poem! Western expansionism is one of my favorite American periods in time, it caters to great American tales. Johnny Cash is so perfect to read this, I could listen to him all day long.

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