He never heard her laugh. He never lost himself in her eyes. In life, boy never met girl, but in death they will now be united. The marriage is to take place today, in the grave they share.

It is five in the morning, and Yang Xiong walks briskly along a muddy path. A small wiry man in his early fifties, Yang is a master of feng shui. He has already smoked a pack of cigarettes tonight, and the cigarette tucked behind his ear will soon be lit by the one that is currently in his mouth. It is still dark. From time to time the headlights of passing cars throw their bright light on the path, which leads to a hillock. Men stand smoking along the way, their faces prematurely aged. They look on and say nothing.

It was 2:30 a.m. when Yang set out from his town in Yanchuan County, a forlorn corner of Shaanxi Province in central China. The feng shui master offers a range of services: "Examining astrological aspects of a candidate for marriage. Choosing an auspicious date for marriage. Selecting optimal locations for homes, shops and graves according to feng shui principles." The family of the deceased young man Li Xianying hired him to choose a grave, hold a burial and conduct a ghost marriage. In modern China ghost marriages are frowned upon, so they have asked that their real names not be used.

Yang reaches the end of the path and nods to two musicians who have been squatting in the dust. One holds a drum, the other a suona, a kind of traditional Chinese oboe. He passes the small, crooked huts that usually house migrant workers. Right behind them is the mortuary, where the dead are sleeping. It is here that Li Xianying has been waiting while they find him a bride.

Half a dozen men hoist Li Xianying’s wooden coffin onto the open bed of a truck, where a second coffin has already been placed. In the mortuary, the feng shui master brushes the abandoned bier with a broom and a shovel and murmurs something incomprehensible in spirit language, taking up the souls of the dead. He then walks around the truck and taps the back of it with a miniature hatchet, indicating to the souls that they can go. Set forth on your journey – your journey into the underworld.

The vehicle starts forward jerkily. The mother and sister of the deceased kneel on the truck bed in front of the coffins, moving their bodies in rhythm to their wails and lamentations. They will cry the whole way – all 40 kilometers of the route. The wind carries their keening over hills and fields, into the surrounding dawn.

Li Xianying, the groom, was the sort of boy who never listened to anyone, says his uncle, Li Yinyan. He just did what he wanted to do. At 13 he dropped out of school and apprenticed, first as a cook and then as a window maker. He wasn’t born for the working life. The sort of boy who’d "go fishing for three days and let the nets hang in the sun for another two," says the uncle. He preferred hanging around Internet cafés playing computer games. His best friend says he was the kind of guy who makes life nicer – always generous, always ready to share a joke. "Something’s been missing since he’s been gone, like food that is suddenly missing an important ingredient."

Li Xianying was 17 at the time of his death. It was the day of the Dragon Boat Festival, June 12, and he wanted to go into town with a couple of friends for a bit of fun. There were five or six of them sitting on the bed of a three-wheeled mini-truck owned by the window maker Xianying worked for. They were laughing and joking. There was a sharp right onto the highway, right after the bridge that spans the broad river – just where the government has put up an enormous propaganda billboard: a happily smiling family with the slogan "Improve quality of life by keeping health in mind during the reproductive process!" The truck went into a skid on the curve, throwing the passengers out. Xianying stood up right away, holding his head. He was fine, he assured his friends – just had a bit of a headache. It was noon.

The bereaved family got a windfall – and decided to spend the money on a female corpse

When they got to the home of a friend in the city, Xianying lay down. He didn’t want to get up, and his friends began to worry. They brought him to a small private clinic, where the doctor saw how dilated his pupils were – not a good sign. Frightened, the youths ran away. The doctor brought Xianying to the city hospital. Nobody knew who he was, and nobody was willing to pay. Some time later, he was recognized by a nurse, a former neighbor, who informed the family. Xianying was still conscious when his relatives arrived, and he was able to nod when they called his name. By that time it was ten minutes to three.

Cerebral hemorrhage, said the doctor. We cannot help him here. The family hired an ambulance and drove to the next largest city, Yanan. It was already after four in the afternoon when they arrived. Too late, they were told. Nothing more could be done. Li Xianying died at half past one in the morning. "If only we had known sooner," says his uncle Li Yinyan. "We could have saved him."

The small caravan with the coffins now makes its way over cyprus-dotted hills of loamy silt, past yellow ravines. The sun is rising behind the clouds. Firecrackers split the silence. The mourners throw them from the windows of their cars to blaze a trail for the souls of the dead. They also throw "spirit money" – faux paper notes meant to keep the spirits at bay as they watch the funeral procession along the route. It’s like paying a highway toll.