The Cremation of Sam McGee

by MSO

The poem The Cremation of Sam McGee is set under the lights of the Aurora Borealis.

There are strange things done in the midnight sun
by the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret trails
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 Service

The Cremation of Sam McGee was a poem written by “The Bard of the Yukon”, Robert Service, who was born in England in 1874. He moved to Canada when he was 21 in hopes of becoming a real life cowboy. He travelled from the Canadian west down to Mexico and for eight years wrote poems and stories while he pursued a variety of jobs before being hired by a Canadian bank with a branch in Whitehorse, Yukon.

One day Service heard a gold rush tall tale about a miner who had been cremated by his friend in the area. The idea intrigued him and he spent the night walking around in the woods composing The Cremation of Sam McGee which he committed to memory. Though it’s a fictional piece, many parts of the poem are based on real places and events. Sam McGee was in fact a real person. He was born in Lindsay, Ontario and eked out a living as a road builder although he did dabble in prospecting during the Klondike Gold Rush. Service, who was working at the bank in Whitehorse noticed McGee’s name on a bank form. McGee was in the Canadian north building roads at the time. Service wanted to use McGee’s name in his poem so the two met and McGee agreed.

Robert Service wrote The Cremation of Sam McGee while living and working in the Yukon in 1907.

The poem was published as part of a book called Songs of Sourdough in 1907 and was an instant success for Service. McGee, however, suffered some teasing as the subject of the poem. It’s said that in retaliation, McGee took Service for a wild canoe ride down the Yukon River. When McGee returned to live with his daughter before he died in 1940, he brought with him an urn that was said to contain some of his ashes. The novelty urns were apparently selling like hotcakes when the poem was released. Service quit his job and lived on the royalties garnered from his works. He moved to Europe where he spent the years before he died in 1958 writing. He was visiting Canada in 1940 when Sam McGee passed away. He attempted to attend McGee’s funeral but went to the wrong church and finally managed to get to the burial ceremony as McGee was being lowered into the ground.

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The Cremation of Sam McGee



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