This poem alludes to the custom of mummification that has its origins in the ancient religions of Egypt and later South America. Mr. Beattie describes his desire to prepare his pet dog "China Rose" for the afterlife-- this was also the wish of many pet owners in the ancient world:
Since they loved their dogs so much, masters were wont to bury their erstwhile pets, sometimes laying them on mats in their own tombs or taking them into their sarcophagi. Dogs were even provided with their individual coffins: one for a bitch, "the beloved of her mistress", bears its own inscription. (p12 ) Rosalind and Jack Janssen. Egyptian Household Animals (Aylesbury, Bucks.: Shire Publications, 1989).
Egyptians believed that a person or animal was comprised of four or more elements. The first is the body itself, then there was the "ka" which is a spiritual or shadowy double that stays next to the body after death, hence the requirement for funerary provisions to keep it satisfied, then there was "ba" a lesser form that died with the body, and finally the most important the "Akh" or reincarnated form. For the dead person or animal to travel into the afterlife a magical spell had to be cast.
The process of mummification has been usefully summarised as follows: 1. Putting the corpse on the operating table 2. Extracting of the brain 3. Extraction of the viscera 4. Sterilization of the body cavities and viscera 5. Embalming the viscera 6. Temporary stuffing of the thoraic and abdominal cavities 7. Dehydration of the body 8. Removal of the temporary stuffing material 9. Packing the body cavities with permanent stuffing material 10. Annointing the body 11. Packing the face openings 12. Smearing the skin with molten resin 13. Adorning and bandaging the mummy
Taken from William H.Peck, "Mummies of ancient Egypt." in Aidan and Eve Cockburn (Eds.) Mummies, Disease, and Ancient Cultures. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983) (Abridged Edition) p.19.
Mr. Beattie's approach to the mummification of his pet is of course not so clinical, indeed he treats it with great levity. He intends to stuff her with artifacts that he has made and those which were dear to her in life i.e. toys and grass. The poem while alluding to the metaphysical questions of life and death, is saved from being morbid or too serious by Mr. Beattie's identification with the subject. One can see "ChinaRose" as belonging to that rich genre of pet poetry that began with Catullus's erotic description of Lesbia's sparrow:
Sparrow, my girl's darling,
Whom she plays with, whom she cuddles,
Whom she likes to tempt with finger-
Tip and teases to nip harder
When my own bright-eyed desire
Fancies some endearing fun
And a small solace for her pain,
I suppopse, so heavy passion then rests:
Would I could play with you as she does
And lighten the spirit's gloomy cares!
Guy Lee (translator and editor). The Poems of Catullus. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990) p.3.
And there are numerous cat poems like Thomas Gray's "On the Death of a Favourite Cat, drowned in a Tub of Fold Fishes", and Chrisopher Smart's "The Cat". Dogs have throughout history had a place as man's best friend. Byron wrote an epitaph for his dog, Boatswain. The Eighteenth century satirist, Alexander Pope, was very fond of his dog, Bounce. Elizabeth Barrett Browning's dog, Flush, gave the title to a Virginia Woolf "dogobiography". Matthew Arnold, noted for his serious critical works on culture and literature, wrote "Geist's Grave" in memory of his beloved dog:
(From "Geist's Grave")
Four years!--and didst thou stay above
The ground, which hides thee now, but four?
And all that life, and all that love,
Were crowded, Geist! into no more?
Only four years those winning ways,
which make me for they pleasure yearn
Call'd us to pet thee or to praise,
Dear little friend! At every turn?