Study Guide

The Cremation of Sam McGee Themes

By Robert Service

  • Mortality

    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. Actually, we think it’s pretty amazing he could make a subject like this funny at all.

    Questions About Mortality

    1. Do you think this poem is making fun of a serious subject, or does it show respect for death and the dead?
    2. Why does the speaker spend so much time talking about the corpse? What do those gory details add to the poem?
    3. Do you think it was fair for Sam to make the speaker promise to cremate him? Can you imagine what you would do in a situation like that?
    4. What’s up with the resurrection at the end? Is it just a joke, or do you think it has some deeper meaning? Was Sam ever really and truly dead?

    Chew on This

    While it deals with the subject in a funny way, this is really a poem about the importance of respecting the dead and treating them with care.

    Even though the ending of the poem is funny, the image of a man rising from the flames has a serious mythical power that gives the final lines real strength.

  • Man and the Natural World

    "The Cremation of Sam McGee" is written to tell a story about two guys and a cremation, but it’s also a story about a place. We get tons of really intense descriptions of what life is like in the Canadian Arctic. We hear about the stars, sled dogs, and trails, but, most of all, we hear about the freezing cold. The cold of winter is almost a character in this poem. The struggle against it makes up a big part of the excitement we feel when we read it.

    Questions About Man and the Natural World

    1. Do you respect people who take risks in nature, like these guys did? Do you think it’s their fault if they get into trouble?
    2. Does the natural world seem beautiful or horrible in this poem?
    3. Why do you think Service spend so much time talking about the cold? Would just a line or two do the trick?
    4. Have you ever felt real, desperate cold? How did it make you feel and act? Do you think that Service did a good job of describing the way it feels?

    Chew on This

    Service manages to convey both the beauty and the terror of the Arctic winter, and that complex mixture gives extra force to the story of the two men.

    The natural world is a cold, unfriendly and isolating place in this poem, which makes the speaker’s bond with Sam seem especially important.

  • Perseverance

    The speaker of "The Cremation of Sam McGee" shows a lot of guts in sticking to his promise. It would have been easy for him to just dump Sam’s body after he died, or at least to bury it fast and get on with his life. But he takes his promise seriously, and turns Sam’s cremation into a kind of mission. Even when the weather and hunger and exhaustion stack up against him, he keeps going and gets the job done. He’s like a sled-riding Nike ad!

    Questions About Perseverance

    1. Do you admire the way the speaker sticks to his promise? Would you have forgiven him if he’d given up on the plan to cremate Sam?
    2. What do you think makes him keep going? Is it fear, guilt, love, a sense of honor? What clues do we get?
    3. Do you think Sam is less determined than the speaker? Does the poem make him seem weak?
    4. The poem tells us that these men came up north to hunt for gold. Does that make them seem more greedy than brave? Does it change your feelings about them?

    Chew on This

    Over the course of the poem, perseverance becomes a tool that helps the speaker to survive his ordeal and maintain his sanity.

    The poem makes a comparison between Sam’s weakness and the speaker’s strength as a way of emphasizing the importance of perseverance.

  • Friendship

    The theme of friendship might not jump right out at you, but we think it’s a really important current running through "The Cremation of Sam McGee." Sometimes the speaker seems frustrated by Sam, or angry at the position Sam has put him in. Still, we think he’s also motivated by a real sense of caring and friendship. He feels a sense of duty, of course, but we think he also just likes Sam (or did until he kicked the bucket) and wants to do what’s right for him.

    Questions About Friendship

    1. How close do you think Sam and the speaker are? Does the poem give you a sense that the speaker really likes Sam?
    2. Are friendship and duty the same thing in this poem? Do you think the speaker carries out Sam’s request because they are friends or because it seems like the right thing to do?
    3. Would you ask a friend to do something like this? Does the poem make it seem like Sam is asking too much?
    4. Does their friendship change over the course of the poem?

    Chew on This

    Even after Sam dies, we see the bond between Sam and the speaker continue to deepen and change, which proves the central importance of their friendship.

    The friendship between Sam and the speaker is a minor force in the poem. The speaker is primarily motivated by his own sense of duty and honor, rather than friendship.

  • Suffering

    Even when you’re as tough as the guys in "The Cremation of Sam McGee" seem to be, it’s a pretty rough life up in the Yukon. Just getting around is a chore, and it seems like you hurt pretty much all the time. We get a lot of different descriptions of suffering in this poem, most of them having to do with how bloody cold it is. We hear about the pain of dying in the cold, the pain of travelling in the cold, etc. Fun to read about, not a lot of fun to do.

    Questions About Suffering

    1. Does this poem make suffering seem like a good thing? Does it seem cool or impressive, or just miserable?
    2. What's the worst suffering in this poem? When do you feel worst for the characters?
    3. Do you have a guess about why Service talks about pain so much in this poem? What does it add to the overall effect?
    4. Is there some kind of payoff for all the hard times these guys go through? Would you say this story has a happy ending?

    Chew on This

    This poem’s focus on suffering gives us a strong sense of a particular place and time, and makes the whole work much more moving.

    At the last moment, the poem turns a moment of real suffering into a silly joke, which rewards the characters and the readers for the pain they have been through.