SANTO TOMAS, Philippines, Oct 24 (Reuters) It could be any other sleepy town in the Philippine countryside, rows of single-storey houses basking under the sun alongside roads with the occasional car or van driving past.
Until you see the coffins laid out outside many of the homes, many unfinished and in rough wood, but others polished, painted and shining with silver or brass-coloured handles.
Santo Tomas, 50 km north of Manila, is the coffin-making capital of the country with about 200 small workshops and backyard family-owned factories churning out tens of thousands of caskets each month.
Before they are finished, many are laid out in the sun to dry after they have been hammered into shaped. Later, they are stacked up on the roadside before being taken away for sale.
Bonifacio Lapid, a 64-year-old, said he started making coffins when he returned to the Philippines in 1989 after years in Guam and Saudi Arabia as an overseas worker.
''I used to run a sari-sari (small grocery) store but one day I realised I had only sold one cigarette stick in most of the day,'' he said. ''So I took 20,000 pesos from my savings and started this business.'' No one is quite sure why the town took to coffin-making, but the area around Santo Tomas is a centre for small-scale manufacturing.
Ceramics and pottery are made here and so also are jeepneys, the iconic Philippine passenger vehicles that are adapted from military jeeps.
Lapid, who worked as a painter and a driver overseas, said he would make coffins and then travel to Manila at least once a week to try and sell them. It was long, hard work, but he said he was doing well now.
''One of my sons owns a funeral service, another takes about 10-15 coffins in his van to Manila once or twice a week,'' he said. Lapid's wife, his four sons and their wives all help out.
LACQUER AND DOGS A dozen employees work in the sprawling yard beside his home, hewing wood into shape, fitting plywood and hammering nails into the coffins. Others varnish and polish the caskets, and one man was spray-painting the finished products with lacquer.
Dogs tied up in the yard barked almost constantly while the children of the family played in and around the finished coffins.
There was another coffin-maker next door and another in the house beyond that as well.
''It's not a bad business,'' said Lapid's wife Concha, asked if she was uncomfortable with the family being linked to dealing with the dead.
''We are rendering a service.'' Prices begin at around 3,000 pesos () for a simple, white coffin with silver-coloured plastic handles and go all the way upto 21,000 pesos for a heavy metal casket.
And despite what some consider high prices, demand is steadily increasing.
''We don't pray that more people die so we'll earn more money,'' said Ranillo Gomez, a man assembling metal coffins in another part of town. ''There are just times when the demand for coffins is high.'' Tita Canlas, the owner of Tita Tits Wood and Metal Craft, said prices were not really an issue.
''The fact is, we all end up in a coffin,'' she said. ''Unless you just want to be thrown in a dump wrapped in a blanket.'' Reuters ARB GC0904