A worker packages a casket for export at a wood craft company in Caoxian county, Shandong province, in June. (GUO XULEI / XINHUA)

At a spacious workshop, a woman concentrates on carving a phoenix on a wooden side panel of a casket to be shipped to Japan. In front of her are dozens of carving tools of different sizes and shapes.

The woman, who is in her 40s, has worked as a wood carver for more than 20 years at Yunlong Wood Carving Co in Caoxian county of Heze, a city in East China's Shandong province.

"The Japanese people see the casket as the last gift given to the deceased by the living. Our workers respect their goodwill, so they are careful when they make every part of the casket," said Li Ruqi, founder of the company.

The caskets, which weigh 25 kilograms, are made of paulownia wood, "which is light and easy to burn (during cremation). The Japanese people prefer paulownia wood for caskets, making our products popular in the country's market," he said.

Caoxian is among the major paulownia processing bases in China, as well as a major board processing base, which has helped the county to become the biggest casket producer for the Japanese market.

Li said that caskets produced in Caoxian account for 60 to 70 percent of all caskets sold in Japan.

The county, which is home to 1.38 million people, now has over 3,000 enterprises that work on wood processing including board processing, wood artwork and furniture, and provides jobs for one-fourth of its population, according to statistics from the county's commerce bureau.

Exports of wood products such as furniture and handicrafts account for 60 percent of the county's total exports and have been sold to more than 100 countries and regions, the bureau said.

Li's grandfather and father had been involved with wood processing, including making caskets, for years before they started to make wood panels in 1995 for Japanese traders, who in turn made them into caskets. Five years later, the company started to make complete caskets for the Japanese market.

"Due to high labor costs in Japan, companies there started to buy whole caskets from China," said Li.

The high-quality caskets have resulted in an increasing number of orders for Li's company, which sold more than 300,000 caskets last year, compared with the 10,000 sold in 2000, according to Li.

Given the slump in the traditional wood board processing industry, several wood processing companies in Caoxian have turned to expanding their sales to Japan with casket production. For example, Heze Dehong Woodwork Co sold 220,000 caskets to Japan in 2020, according to company figures.

Details are taken into consideration to avoid any defects, Li said. For example, the hinge on the small window on a casket that is designed so people can pay respects to the deceased should not make a sound when the window is opened and closed, as any sound would be considered disrespectful to the deceased, Li said.

The businesses spend time conducting research on Japanese culture and habits.

Li had sent his son to study in Japan for four years. Now the young man oversees the artistic design of caskets for Li's company.

Companies offer a variety of choices, including carved caskets, leather-covered ones and caskets with lace.

Casket manufacturing companies are also making renovations to meet customers' demands. They have developed unique themes, including caskets with cherry blossom patterns.

"Taking environmental protection into account, we are testing new materials, such as using a special kind of paper as a cover," said Li.

As the procedures are currently done mainly by hand, Heze Dehong is considering the use of automation for some procedures.

Li said his company is also adopting automation to reduce labor costs. "Almost all enterprises here are using automation at some point, such as wood board cutting, as labor costs keep increasing," he said.

In addition, Li's company is exploring markets in the United States and Europe to build a global network.

"We are studying the customs and culture of the US and European countries, and making samples to test the markets first," he said.