In previous posts, I’ve explored the use of cremation in the excessively popular television adaption of George R. R. Martin’s books: Game of Thrones. Together, these represent a high-profile collection of popular imaginings of how cremation operates in the pre-industrial past. Whilst portraying a fantasy world, the funerary scenes shed light on the themes and biases inherent in our portrayal of open-air cremation in the past and present, indirectly informed by archaeology, history and legendary sources.
- Burning Ambitions: Cremation in Game of Thrones Season 1
- Fire on the Water: Cremation in Game of Thrones Season 3
- And Now His Watch Has Ended: Cremation Up North in Game of Thrones Season 3
- Burning Craster’s Keep: Cremation in Game of Thrones Season 4
- Burning the Night’s Watch: Mass Cremation in Game of Thrones Season 4
We see cremation taking place in 3 different ‘cultures’ in Martin’s fantasy universe, including in the desert, upon water, burning halls, mass-cremation and the dynamic between cremation to honour and cremation to protect the living.
At the end of Season 4, we encounter another dimension for cremation; as a romantic act of love that constitutes an act of care and affinity beyond family or social bonds. For the lone cremation of Ygritte by Jon Snow, we find a connection to landscape as key in the choice of cremation location.
Warrior-woman of the Wildlings and former-lover of Jon Snow, Ygritte dies after hestitating to kill Snow in the intense fighting within Castle Black. Captured Wildling leader, Tormund, implores Jon Snow that Ygritte is put to rest in the ‘real north’: beyond The Wall. Snow takes the body of Ygritte through the tunnel by horse-drawn sledge into the woods by a sacred Heart Tree.
We see Snow isolated in the forest with the pyre already built. The acquisition of resources, the cutting of the wood etc. is left out. We have a lingering shot of Ygritte’s ‘peaceful’ body without visible wounds, clothed but with a shoulder open to the cold, perhaps to make clear her gender. Her body looks prepared for death: washed and reclothed, but these are elements again we do not see (whether they took place at Castle Black or at the Heart Tree).
The pyre is lit and then JS simply walks away. The pyre burns higher as Snow moves towards the viewer with the pyre in the background and the torch he used to light the pyre discarded still burning on the snowy forest floor. This might be seen as minimal, simple and therefore a ‘pure’ funeral. This is an ideal of many; for a humble, personal death in the modern world and we find here open-air cremation fulfilling this romantic fantasy of our time as much as the imagined fantasy of Ygritte, Tormund and Snow.
In the context of the story, Snow’s actions might be taken as a refusal to engage/inability to perform in the kind of honour that he affords members of the Night’s Watch: a full military-style funeral. He honours her through the act of cremation itself and its location, but not by uttering words, observing her burning, or treating her ashes in any fashion. Most importantly, she cannot, as a Wildling and one of the defeated enemy, but honoured in public within Castle Black.
This is again an illustration of how cremation can operate as mundane disposal, but through the choice of a sacred location by a sacred tree, it can acquire meaning to the deceased, mediated by the survivor(s). It also shows how the act of cremation itself, fulfilling a personal/social obligation through its enactment even without performance, cremation is more than dissolution even in the absence of post-cremation ceremonies. Yet again, however, it is odd though that Snow doesn’t even stick around to collect and disposal of her ashes – a repeated oddity of fantasy cremations on film…