Family Owned & Proud of It

Levinson Funeral Home (Photographs by Alan Gilbert)
Levinson Funeral Home (Photographs by Alan Gilbert)

For most people, a bad day at the office might involve bad coffee, an angry customer or a tidal wave of emails. For the Levinson family, all of that pales in comparison to burying a child, something it does on a relatively regular basis.

“There’s no room for mistakes here,” said Matt Levinson, the fifth generation of Levinsons to enter the business.

At a time when large corporations dominate the funeral industry, Sol Levinson & Bros. funeral home is a rarity. When Matt joined the staff full time in 2005, the business entered into rare company. A 2012 USA Today article cited estimates that out of the 5 million family businesses in the U.S., one in three is operated by the second generation. Only one in every 500 is sixth-generation run.

While Levinson’s has become a Baltimore institution over the century it has existed, the situation is different elsewhere.

The National Funeral Directors Association estimates that the employment of funeral service workers will grow 12 percent from 2012 to 2022, and revenue, which has been steadily increasing across the industry, is expected to increase to $16.2 billion by the end of 2014. But while the funeral industry has been gaining steam, the number of funeral homes in the United States has been gradually declining. In the decade between 2003 and 2013, the number of homes registered with the National Directory of Morticians Redbook slipped by more than 2,200.

Part of the reason behind the decrease might be the growth of large funeral service companies that often purchase privately owned funeral homes and cemeteries, forcing regional competitors out or merging smaller businesses together.

Waves were made 40 miles south in the fall when Service Corporation International, the nation’s largest funeral service provider, sought to acquire Stewart Enterprises, the country’s second-largest funeral service provider.

At the center of the unrest in Washington was the Hines-Rinaldi Funeral Home of Silver Spring, which was owned by Stewart Enterprises and had a contract with the Jewish Funeral Practices Committee that ensured the availability of low-cost funerals to those who requested it. The community feared that SCI would not renew the contract, and the cost of burying a loved one would skyrocket. The merger has since been permitted by the Federal Trade Commission on the condition that the new combined company sell off 91 of its locations.

Elsewhere, SCI has gained a reputation for complaints of deceptive sales tactics, desecration of graves and mishandling remains of the deceased, according to a July 2014 Philadelphia Inquirer article that cited lawsuit settlements of $14 million, $80 million and $100 million in California and Florida.

Also read, “How much does a funeral cost?”

In the 1990s, the Levinsons say, SCI tried to purchase the funeral home, but the Baltimore community convinced the family to decline the offer.

“We’re proud to still be family owned,” said Matt, adding that not a lot of communities have the option of a family-owned Jewish funeral home available to them anymore when they find themselves having to bury a loved one.

Beth El Congregation’s Rabbi Steven Schwartz has officiated funerals all over the mid-Atlantic but said Sol Levinson sets the bar on Jewish funeral services.

“Levinson’s is the cream of the crop,” said Schwartz. Going to other funeral homes after working with Levinson’s, he added, is “like a different world.”

A major part of why the family’s business has been so successful, Schwartz speculates, in addition to the professionalism the company brings to every occasion, is how involved the Levinsons are in the Baltimore Jewish community.

“In Baltimore you have the whole dynamic of everybody in the Jewish community knowing everybody else,” said Schwartz. “There’s something nice about it, and when you go into Levinson’s, they know your family, probably. It’s that sense of community.”

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