Anchorage pastor drives down cost of dying in the Bush

Posted: Sunday, September 29, 2002

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Just as it's more expensive to live in rural Alaska, it costs more to die there, too.

Rev. Charles Bridges says he's doing his part to lower the cost of caskets for the Bush, and claims he can cut by at least half what competing funeral homes offer for most burial-related services.

Bridges, a Baptist pastor, started Alaska Casket and Monument Co. four years ago in Anchorage, and says he's grabbed about 6 percent of the total casket sales in the state.

More than 90 percent of his business is in the Bush, where he sells about 150 caskets annually.

The retail business has been so successful, Bridges says, that competing funeral homes now are trying to drive him under by offering rock-bottom package deals.

Bishop said his competition likes to discount him as a cut-rate casket store, sort of the fast-food of funeral services.

''They don't like me,'' said Bridges, a big, soft-spoken man with a strong Texas drawl.

Bridges, pastor at Mountain View Community Church, worked for years as a family counselor at two large, corporately owned Anchorage funeral home chains.

''I saw a need,'' said Bridges. ''I was astounded when I saw a casket that cost the funeral home $400 being sold for $3,600.''

His retail casket and monument shop is nestled between a tax-preparation service and a fabric store in South Anchorage.

Bridges' lowest price casket is about $900. It's an all-steel model that competitors sell for at least three times as much, he said.

More ornate midlevel caskets cost $5,000 or more in competing Anchorage funeral homes. Bridges' price: $1,775.

''I'm making plenty of profit on these caskets,'' Bridges said. ''One can only assume the mark up at funeral homes is atrocious.''

He says he can cut by half the cost of a monument, and several hundred dollars off deluxe cremation urns.

Why so cheap?

''Why don't you ask them why they're charging so much more,'' Bridges said.

Funeral directors at Evergreen Memorial Chapels Inc. and at Dignity Memorial did not return phone calls from the Journal or they would not comment.

Jeff Williams, funeral director of Anchorage Funeral Home & Cremation Service Inc., said his company has not been affected by Bridges' entry into the market. The Anchorage-based, Alaska-owned funeral home chain has locations in Kenai, Soldotna, Homer, Seward, Wasilla and Fairbanks.

The company ships about 200 caskets to the Bush annually, and handles about 1,200 funerals.

Williams said he can at least match Bridge's prices, casket to casket, plus his company offers full-service funerals.

There are 22 licensed funeral homes in the state, including the state's medical examiner in Anchorage, according to state records. There are 49 licensed funeral directors in the state, 44 of whom also are licensed embalmers, state records show.

Last year, there were approximately 2,800 deaths in Alaska, down about 100 from 2000, according to Phillip Mitchell, research analyst with the state Bureau of Vital Statistics in Juneau.

''Ninety percent of deaths are interred here in Alaska and 10 percent go Outside,'' Mitchell said.

Bridges has been aggressive in going after the Alaska business.

Instead of running tiny ads on an obituary page in local newspapers like most funeral-related businesses, Bridges has done an advertising blitz, mostly on television stations that broadcast statewide.

The television advertising has garnered much business, he said.

Bridges supplies caskets to several Alaska Native organizations across the state.

''He's been just terribly responsive to us,'' said Christine Morgan, social services manager at the Norton Sound Health Corp. in Nome. ''Night or day, he has dropped what he is doing and got to us what we needed. He understands the unique problems we have in the Bush.''

Bridges is taking steps to enhance his services by partnering with Anchorage mortician Sam Walker to offer complete funeral services.

Walker, an embalmer for 35 years, has spent most of his time in Alaska, both in Anchorage and Kodiak. He says he will open a full-service funeral home in Anchorage later this year.

Walker said he shares Bridges' goal of providing funeral services at a fair price.

''I'm not out to hurt anybody,'' Walker said. ''My philosophy is live and let live.''

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