When coffins are first introduced to the novel in volume one, they serve a utilitarian purpose: Grandpa makes the narrator a narrow wooden coffin to bury him outside the schoolyard. It is a humble coffin, but the narrator is still appreciative and the reader is given a sense that he was buried with respect. But the sudden influx of death in the village makes the once ominous and morbid coffin a well-sought after prize. Coffins become a scarce and therefore valuable resource.
Yan is not exactly subtle with the message he wants to convey in his novel. When villagers begin cutting down old trees and repurposing school furniture for their coveted coffins, they are quite literally sacrificing their past and future. Yet it is hard to blame the villagers for wanting to honor their dead in such desperate times. The reason this sparks such outrage however is because all of it was ultimately unnecessary. If Ding Hui had not stolen the coffins in the first place, the villagers would have been fine. This is taken to the extreme when Ding Hui treats this as a personal challenge to show the villagers once and for all how capable he is. He pays for the coffin of his brother, the supposed family disgrace, with not only the blood of his village but their coffins too. It is a callous display of wealth that drives a nail into how a beautiful coffin is really just a symbol of mindless vanity and excess. It is a rats race. There is no benefit to a beautiful coffin to the dead. It is only a status symbol for the living.
Funerals are still often status symbols today. They can cost tens of thousands of dollars, which can include everything from body preparation, service fees, to actual casket costs. It is interesting to note that Mao himself was very much against burials as he thought they were a waste of wood and money and burials encouraged superstition (while his body ironically now lies embalmed in a glass sarcophagus in Beijing). As of today, there is a strong effort on the part of the CCP to eradicate burials in favor of cremation, although modern campaigns are more concerned with arable land scarcity than the actual needs of the people. It seems to echo the continuing theme of capitalist objectives pervading our treatment of the dead.
Totally agree with this reading of the coffin symbolism. What was particularly interesting was that the village was entirely stripped bare of all its trees, and they weren’t being chopped only for coffins, but for the active use of the living as well. It felt like it took a plague to unleash some sort of anarchy of greed in the villagers, who clearly had been yearning for upward social mobility since the beginning (as illustrated by the fact that they all sold their blood so desperately). To me, Ding Hui’s various immoral endeavors and businesses were disturbing as the played on the desperation of these villagers. I can’t help but view this entire story as a subtle critique of the government, which created these conditions of inequality in the villagers in the first place.