The villager from the little Hanan production brigade was 88 years old, with dark brown skin and a long goatee. "Please help me." he asked a visiting relative. "I don't want to die alone."

His wife, who was the same age but blind and nearly deaf, had been sent into the nearby big city so relatives could care for her. Like millions of other elderly Chinese wedded to some of the old ways, the two of them now faced what to them was the horror of communist disdain for the afterlife. The party said anybody who died in urban areas must be cremated.

"We're ready to die, we've been ready for 15 years to die. But if she dies in the city, she'll be cremated, and I'll be buried here, and we'll never be together," the old man siad.

Despite their gratitude to the Communists for the improvements that have let them live so much longer and more comfortably, such conflicts in belief represent the deepest sort of personal tragedy to many older Chinese. Thirty years of lectures on Marxist atheism and on the damage done by superstitions have not erased these old fears.

The old man took his visitor into a shed. He pointed to two black coffins, built with wood he salvaged from a building torn down several years earlier. He showed off his burial lot, with trees carefully planted around it. It could not easily be plowed up as are many graves in this nation desperately short of fertile land.

Someone asked the old man what he thought of cremation. He shivered. "I think it must hurt," he said.

People whose national identity has been preserved as long as that of the Chinese often betray deep emotional feeling about ancestors and old times. Proper death and burial help soothe such emotions.

The Communist Party's efforts to introduce efficiency into this delicate area have rubbed some emotions raw and brought acts of creative obstruction typical of Chinese attempts to meld old and new.

Small black-market syndicates now specialize in smuggling bodies out of the cities so they can be buried in the countryside. Some older peasants say they are reluctant to go to town for medicine for fear they will die there and be cremated, far from where their families are buried. Some try to ensure that medical visits to the city do not force them to stay overnight. They do not take the medicine until they have returned home. After all, what do doctors know?

Chinese peasants like to arrange their deaths with some dignity and care, without shouting or tears. To outsiders, this may seem like callousness, but Chinese insist it is not.

Long Ansheng, 70, had felt uncomfortable for a few days, so his son took him to the local hospital on his bicycle.

Long stayed three days. The doctors decided there was nothing they could do, but they said nothing to the old man about their grim conclusion. They told only his son. But the old man knew. "When his son began to give him better food than usual, he understood what that meant," a neighbor said.

Long returned home, not to the bedroom of his son's neat, whitewashed brick home in a village 50 miles south of Canton, but to a wooden shed, a storehouse for wood nd dried grass fuel. He lay down on some straw and there, without any further discussion of the matter, he prepared to die.

"The people think if someone dies inside their home, it will bring an unlucky fate to their children," one resident explained. Chinese follow different customs in different parts of the country. Some put a bit of earth under the deathbed inside the house. Some make no unusual preparations.

While the communist government has been unable to stamp out traditional treatment of death, the relative stability and improvement of conditions under the Communists have benefited China's elderly more than any other group.

Nearly every Chinese woman over 60 that I have met tells stories of losing children to disease and malnutrition before 1949, some as many as seven or eight babies. After 1949, however, many had bumper crops of children.

Peking's municipal health bureau said the city's infant mortality rate dropped from 117.6 to 10.3 per thousand between 1949 and 1978.

Foreign observers estimate that the rural infant mortality rate also has declined sharply, from more than 200 per thousand in 1949 to less than 40 in the early 1970s. Now China's elderly are often in what the Chinese consider the enviable position of having several sons to feed and house them.

Those difficult years before liberation may have left China with an elderly population of particularly hardy stock. Figures supplied by Peking's municipal health bureau appears to confirm the remarkable change. In 1950, the average lifespan for city residents was 53.88 years for males and 50.22 years for females. By 1975, life expectancies had jumped two decades, to 70.72 years for males and 72.72 for females.

The prosperity of the early 1950s, as the country recovered from civil war, provided another of the social anomalies that arise as Chinese life occasionally subverts Marxism. More survivng children and more vigor and longevity reinforced, rather than reduced, the Confucian traditions of respect and influence for the old.

Filial piety survived here in a way that troubles some very egalitarian Marxists. Retired workers often receive 70 percent of their salaries after retirement, a substantial contribution of a family income -- often as much as half the total. This entitles the elderly to continue to determine how the family budget is to be spent, at times even against the wishes of their fully employed children.

Rural homes often provide more living space and more variety of food for the elderly, and rural villages are more apt to observe some of the old celebrations that Chinese old people look forward to.

When someone passes a decade, a 50th, 60th or 70th birthday, special dinners are often held. Friends and relatives come to the "old age feast" and the guest of honor may wear a new suit of clothes sewn by his wife or daughter.

Long Ansheng, the old man who moved out to the shed to die, had gone to town and bought his won burial suit soon after his 60th birthday. It was black with a formal Mao-jacket -- what the Chinese call a "Sun Yet-sen suit" -- with black cloth shoes to match.

Elderly Chinese men and women often purchase their coffins in advance, or at least the wood for them. Long, however, had not bought a coffin. No one was quite sure why.

"The old man was in pain and he complained a lot. His son and daughter-in-law brought him food several times a day, but if he didn't eat it they took the food back so someone else could have it," a neighbor said.

No one seemed to think much about whether the old man was comfortable in the shed. "His son treated him like Long had treated his own father when he died," said the neighbor. "People follow the old way. They thought he was old enough to die. He was a person who liked to be alone, and did not talk much. He had only the one son, and his wife had died three years before."

Medical care, so important to older people, has spread far into the countryside with the arrival of "barefoot doctors," usually young people with some rudimentary medical training. For the most part, however, they dispense just traditional herbal medicines. Chinese often are not instructed, as Americans are, to seek expert diagnoses for possible cancer symptoms.

Long died in his little shed on a hot August night. "Nobody knew exactly when he died, they only found him dead the next morning," the neighbor said. There was no need for precision. The local government did not require a death certificate.

His son was the first to find him. He called the family and went to inform the chief of the production team.

"The chief came to the house to check. He was a relative of the family and so the son was seeking his personal help. He needed help cleaning out the old clothes and old goods used by the old man, and needed people to buy a coffin." No one bothered to call a doctor, even the barefoot doctor. They simply covered the body with a clean blanket.

The coffin, bought at a shop specializing in farm tools that made coffins on the side, was really just a set of boards. It cost Long's son about $10.

The son and the production team chief put a new blanket on the bottom of the coffin, then lifted up the body dressed in the new suit and gently laid it inside. A pillow was placed under the head. Following the local custom, a few pieces of jade, the only jewelry any members of that village could afford, were placed in the coffin beside the body.

Some pieces belonged to the old man himself, some to his relatives who had saved them for just such an occasion.

Relatives and good friends had a last look at Long. The coffin was closed.

The men loaded the coffin on a pushcart. A procession of about 30 adults, nearly all the adults in a village of about 140 people, followed the cart toward the burial hill a little more than a mile away. Most wore plain peasant clothing, in black or some dark color. But the family wore white, with white hoods that did not cover their faces. In other villages, women sometimes wear white wigs.

Despite government warnings against supersition, the villagers in this part of China followed rather ancient mystical rules for locating the grave, described in a large book called the "Dongxiong." Many older people in the village had copies of the book, but the most respected authority on the subject was a blind man, very old, who knew the old Taoist laws about where to place a grave.

"This year it might be best turned to the east, next year to the west," he said. When Long was buried, the hill contained about 40 or 50 graves, laid out every which way.

As the coffin was lowered into the six-foot-deep pit, no one spoke, but a small local folk song was sung softly by the friends and relatives. The family had ordered a headstone, but there had not yet been time to prepare it. They marked the grave temporarily with a piece of wood, with Long's name on it.

The funeral party walked quietly ack to the village. Some women, friends of the family, had been working to prepare a feast, a ritual followed after death in several other parts of China.

In some parts of China, the solemnity of the occasion is emphasized by forbidding consumpton of meat, but here in southern China the guests were served the usual fare for special occasions -- fish, vegetagles and a little pork.

"The dishes by custom had to be an odd number, one, three, five, seven or nine," said one guest. "This was in contrast to wedding feasts, where the dishes would be of even numbers." tEach guest received one or two pennies in a red envelope, another southern custom. "There was little loud talk or laughter. The atmosphere was serious," said a neighbor. In most of China, that would be the end of it, except for visits to the grave at two special festivals each year for sweeping and tending the burial ground. But in Guangdong, the families follow a tidy custom of reburial. It has ancient roots that no one quite understands anymore, but it does help prevent graveyard congestion.

After a wait of about four years, the grave is reopened. In some communities, the family gathers around for the ceremony. "It was chilling, I don't ever want to do it again," said a young Chinese-American who watched a similar rite with her relatives in Hong Kong.

In Long's village, a hired man specializing in such work was sent out, alone, to dig up the body and place the bones in a large jar for reburial.

"Usually the body has not completely disintegrated," said another southern Chinese who had seen two such disinterments. "The man will pick out the bones, wipe them clean, and put them in a jar about two feet high and one foot wide. The bones go in a certain order, based on a man sitting, feet first, then legs, and so on."

The jar was carried, in Long's village, to another hillside where about 200 bone-filled jars already were arranged, half-buried into notches in the side of a hill.

In early April each year, families throughout China visit graves at the Qingming festival. It is not a real holiday; work continues, but family members can leave for a while to weed the area around the graves of loved ones. mThey sometimes burn papers made to simulate money or clothing, or light incense and firecrackers. Many grave mounds are built with small stone cups at the top for burning the paper offerings.

"My grandmother died several years ago, and I remember my father bringing me during Qingming and watching him burn the paper money on top of the small tablet on the little mound," recalled Wang Guotang, 24, a guide in Xian.

"But the grave was plowed over during the Cultural Revolution, and we don't know exactly where it is now. They had this campaign against the 'four olds' -- old customs, old culture, old thought and old traditions, and they plowed under many graves to get more land.

"It made my grandfather feel very bad, but it was not something he could stop. Now they say they are sorry about it, and the government has allocated land to each brigade for graves.

"My grandfather wants to be buried there, but there is no chance any longer for him to be buried next to my grandmother."