LIUZHOU, China - In China these days, just about every form of commerce is thriving, including decidedly illegal ones like prostitution and counterfeiting. But not coffin making.
For centuries, this city's Longevity Lane was the best-known place in China to buy top-quality cedar coffins. Legend has it that the city's reputation was established when Liu Zhongyuan, a great poet of ninth-century China, died here in domestic exile and his body was placed in a cedar coffin for shipment to his home province in northern China. After a journey of six months, the poet's body is said to have been as fresh as the day he died.
Ask for a coffin here these days, though, and a visitor is sent to a department store, where miniature mahogany coffins sell for $2 apiece as unlikely good-luck charms. Instead - Western executives worried about illegal copying, please take note - a strictly enforced ban prevents the sale of coffins in the city.
The ban on coffins shows that when the Chinese government really tries to enforce regulations, it can still effectively do so. The suppression of coffin sales and the requirement that the dead must be cremated instead of buried began soon after the Communist takeover in 1949; it was aimed in part at preventing ostentatious funerals and preserving land for other uses.
Pre-Communist society in China put such an emphasis on funerals that families spent up to three years actively mourning a death and sometimes even sold daughters to pay for elaborate temple rituals commemorating an elder member, according to Ho Pui-yin, a historian at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
"The whole family spent a lot of money and suffered a lot," she said.
Few tasks in any society are as sacred as the disposal of the dead, and that is even more true in a society with traditions of ancestor worship and Confucian respect for parents. So despite the general ban, the tradition remains alive, if only barely. A few cedar coffins are still being made, almost entirely by hand, in backyard workshops in places like Liudao, a tiny village nearly two hours' drive from Liuzhou.
Craftsmen there follow techniques handed down over hundreds of years, but even in Liudao, burials are strictly prohibited. They are allowed only in remote parts of China.
"The ordinary people who live in villages all want to be buried, not cremated," said Liang Yandang, a 67-year-old resident of Liudao, as he wistfully watched a coffin being fashioned in a backyard workshop.
Coffins are not cheap - several months' income for a peasant - but would be worth the expense in the eyes of many Chinese if they were allowed, Mr. Liang added. "Burial is much better luck for the descendants than cremation," he said. "The government bans burials, but if it is legal when I die, I want to be buried."
Given the rampant capitalism in virtually every aspect of Chinese commercial society, the nearly total ban on burials is quite an achievement. It is particularly notable because Chinese attach a special meaning to the word coffin, or "guan cai," which sounds like a combination of the words for "government official" and "fortune."
Coffin souvenirs here are painted in beautiful calligraphy with characters wishing "Good fortune and promotion to a higher rank."
By contrast to their success banning coffins, China's leaders have repeatedly failed at stamping out counterfeiting and copyright violations. Illegal copies of the latest Hollywood movies are sold openly for $1.25 apiece at a store around the corner from Longevity Lane, where a large banner also announces that 120 movies can be rented for the equivalent of $3.60.
The difference is that coffins and burials are seen as an even greater challenge to social controls than counterfeiting, which deprives American studios, actors and actresses of royalties but does not involve tricky issues like the control of land in perpetuity for a burial ground.
Longevity Lane, once a bustling center of small workshops, is now a quiet residential street with a mixture of decaying stone and brick buildings and dreary, concrete apartment buildings. The area was badly damaged in 1996 by a flood of the muddy Liu River that inundated four-fifths of the city. Even before the flood, the Communist authorities tried to efface the lane's history by renaming it Evergreen Lane.
Only with many inquiries and a long drive into the countryside is it possible to find a few cedar coffins still being made in Liudao.
More Than a Billion Chinese but So Few Coffins
A dozen simple shacks line Liudao's only paved - and potholed - road. Each shack has a corrugated steel sheet balanced on timbers as a roof, and holds several simple but beautiful coffins, nearly seven feet long and hewn from red-toned cedar.
An elderly woman with few remaining teeth sits in humid heat next to three coffins at the entrance to one of the shacks, below a limestone crag that soars nearly 1,000 feet above the nearby rice fields. Asked where the coffins are made, she gestures toward a tall, solid iron gate topped with spikes but so covered with rust that holes are appearing in the bottom.
Through the gate lies a large enclosure surrounded by a 10-foot stone wall and littered with seven-foot-long cedar logs cut in half lengthwise. Hens herd their chicks from the shade of one log to the next, searching for specks of grain along the way.
The enclosure is the workshop of Yao Qingdai, who learned coffin craftsmanship from his father and grandfather. He now lets a couple of fellow villagers, ankle deep in cedar shavings, do most of the hard labor while he supervises.
The logs are cut on the flanks of the limestone crags, which look like huge fingers poking into the sky and are hairy with trees. Horses bring the logs down the slopes and precipices, Mr. Yao explained. Cedar resists moisture and decay, making it prized for coffins.
After drying outdoors for a full year, the logs are sawed, hollowed out and polished mostly by hand into long planks that are nearly flat on one side and semicircular on the other. With extra hollowing near one end to accommodate a corpse's shoulders, the planks are then carefully fitted together without the use of nails to form a coffin.
The coffins sell for $75 to $250, depending on the size of the corpse and the age of the wood, which develops a desirable polished sheen over time.
The coffins are for sale only to people living far from cities. Beijing authorities loosened the national ban on burials slightly in 1985 to allow burials and coffin sales just for residents of the most remote, least populated and most inaccessible areas.
The harvest of cedars around here is strictly controlled because deforestation of mountain slopes may have contributed to the 1996 flood. Only trees less than 100 years old may be cut, and the regulated harvest is allocated to the local furniture industry, officials said.
The only family events that rivaled funerals for lavishness in pre-Communist China were marriages. Fancy marriages were suppressed during the Cultural Revolution in the 1960's but have sprung back with renewed popularity that often leads to even greater showiness than in the past. That has raised the question of how much pent-up demand there may be for a revival of traditional funerals and burials.
Burials pose more challenges than weddings for Chinese authorities, however, because China still bans private ownership of rural land. Cities are too crowded to accommodate new cemeteries.
So the Chinese government is unlikely to let its citizens start burying loved ones in coffins again any time soon.
"If the government allowed them to do it again," Professor Ho said, "I cannot imagine how they would control it."