I’ve now written two posts about cremation in the HBO series Game of Thrones. We started with a Dothraki/Valyrian cremation of Khal Drogo in Season 1 and a Riverlands cremation of Hoster Tully in Season 3. However, it’s ‘up north’ beyond the Wall where we get the regular cremations in the show during Seasons 3 and 4 (at the time of writing, I have to see Seasons 5 and 6). It is to these I want to now look.
We begin with Episode 4 of Season 3 where the Night’s Watch have retreated following their slaughter by wights and White Walkers at the Battle at the Fist of the First Men. They arrive at Craster’s Keep and one of their number, Bannan, dies of his wounds and is cremated out of doors on a carefully stacked pyre, seemingly without pyre-goods. Jeor Mormont – the Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch – leads the service and the Night’s Watch stand in a circle, at least one in the foreground with an axe ready for use (or used in the hewing of stakes for the pyre.
A notable feature is the stakes that rise from the pyre, creating an outward-facing crown-like array. These are not particularly functional, but they do create a striking and memorable feature and perhaps (if bound laterally) hold the pyre material in place. Indeed, all of the posts seem to have been cut into spikes, even the horizontal ones for no apparent reason other than aesthetics, although one might speculate that they were arranged thus because they are reused timbers or to add as a defence should the cadaver become a wight before the conflagration had begun… I suspect it is just to look ‘cool’.
Early on, we get a sense that people who die up at or beyond the Wall ‘come back’ as ‘wights’, operating at the command of the White Walkers. The obvious solution is to burn them before they can ‘turn’. Is it obvious? Why not simply cut their heads off? We don’t find out. In any case, here we have cremation motivated by ‘disease’.as a response to revenants: something that has widespread precedent in modern and past cultures. Across much of northern, central and south-east Europe in the later medieval and modern era, the real-world belief that a ‘bad death’ might resurrect physically to harm the living can be identified. Archaeologists have most regularly encountered examples of supposed ‘vampire graves’ with various mechanisms adopted to prevent the dead from rising: stakes, stones and decapitation. Yet burning was also a widely utilised mechanism. One only as to think of Grettir’s Saga in which the evil shepherd Glam comes back to haunt the living. Exhuming his body and cremating it on the seashore is used as a final resort to destroy his remains.
Regardless of this necessity of avoiding the cadaver rising as a wight, Bannan’s funeral is portrayed as a night-time solemn military cremation with the remaining Night’s Guard encircling the pyre in the snow laden forest close to Craster’s Keep. Whether the Night’s Watch previously cremated their dead or not (and I suspect not), they have rapidly invented a funerary tradition, building on necessity and seemingly unafraid that fires might attract the attention of Wildings or White Walkers.
Is there a point here? Well, I guess a simple observation is that even when cremation might be often regarded as utilitarian or anti-revenant – a means of rapidly disposing of a feared or dangerous cadaver – the procedure operates in a specific social and religious context. Cremation is never just disposal; it is always a choice among many available options for dealing with the dead. Yet even in the most urgent of scenarios requiring the rapid dissolution of the corpse, cremation almost always acquires a rich and varied set of ritualised dimensions even so. One can never separate utility and ceremony so clearly when dealing with cremation. So, for the Night’s Watch, cremation is afforded with respect, formality and within a corporate military identity of valour and sacrifice.