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Funeral director is now 'on the receiving end of the comforting'

From the time they were teenagers, triplets Adam, Brian, and Jonathon knew the envelope was always there on the desk.

Joseph Levine (jacket) with his triplet sons (from left) Adam, Jonathon, and Brian, and daughter Lindsey. Joseph is being treated for pancreatic cancer.
Joseph Levine (jacket) with his triplet sons (from left) Adam, Jonathon, and Brian, and daughter Lindsey. Joseph is being treated for pancreatic cancer.Read more

From the time they were teenagers, triplets Adam, Brian, and Jonathon knew the envelope was always there on the desk.

"Everything you need to know is in there," their father, owner of Joseph Levine & Sons Funeral Home, would tell them before he left for a trip. "If I don't come back, you'll know what to do."

"We all understood that our father needed to do that because that's the kind of man he is. Totally responsible, totally committed, not just to his business, but to us," said Brian. "And being prepared was everything to him."

Although the brothers, now 36, know they will one day take over the business, that envelope contains the details of Levine's last wishes. And now it has taken on even more significance.

Levine, 68, was diagnosed in March with pancreatic cancer. Despite aggressive treatment that has left him almost a hundred pounds lighter, he was told that an average of about six or seven months is a typical prognosis.

So the Levine men - father and sons - are living out the reality that endings come to us all, something they have helped others face as fifth-generation owners of one of the Philadelphia area's oldest and most prominent Jewish funeral homes.

On a recent afternoon, Joe and his sons sat in the living room of the Main Line condominium where Joe, long divorced, lives alone, surrounded by family photos of the generations.

"In the beginning, I couldn't sit in this room, on this sofa, without crying," Levine said. "It felt like there was everything to say, but it was so tough to say it."

Over time, the man who has comforted so many has found solace in a loving family, an outpouring of support from others, and a life well-lived. "This time, I'm on the receiving end of the comforting," he says quietly.

He also realizes that his sons, who have been living the business under his constant tutelage, are ready to take over. "They know what they need to know, and they understand that the most important thing is to be good and decent men."

Introduced at 11 to the funeral business by his father, Leonard, Levine remembers how he embraced even the most menial tasks, washing cars and floors, as he was introduced to the company that his great-grandfather, a grocer, started in 1883.

Unlike his sister and brother, Levine realized early that he was destined to continue the family legacy. "There was nothing else I wanted to do."

From its original home at Fifth and Carpenter Streets, Levine & Sons moved several times to various locations on North Broad Street. By 1984, when Levine succeeded his late father and his father's partner, Bill McKenna, an Irish casket salesman who had married a Jew, its building was at 7112 N. Broad in West Oak Lane, where it has remained. It has owned the Haym Salomon Memorial Park in Frazer, Chester County, since 1986, and in more recent years, the funeral home has added locations in Broomall and Trevose, which the triplets help run as well.

Levine remembers when obituaries were typed and driven to newsrooms. Other things also have changed: There are, Levine reports, many more cremations, more graveside funerals, and, with the advent of geographically separated families, even streamed funerals.

"But I honestly feel that rituals matter, even in these changing times," he says.

Levine's illness, of course, has been a game-changer for his sons.

"I now certainly have a far more personal perspective on how a difficult diagnosis affects a family," says Adam. "Now I really know, in a painfully personal way, what they're going through."

Very different in personality, the brothers bring unique traits to both Levine's care and welfare, and the business.

Adam, who has studied in yeshivas, is the most religiously observant of the brothers. Brian, trained in sociology, is known as the family mediator. Jonathon, an economics major in college, tends to be the most involved in the business end of the company.

That they are triplets also seems to help.

"We've been together all of our lives, and we totally understand one another, and our strengths," Brian says. Together, along with their younger sister, Lindsey, 29, an artist, they have sought every medical resource for their father.

"The whole family is out there and doing what needs to be done," says Rabbi Eric Yanoff of Temple Adath Israel in Merion Station.

Yanoff, who has officiated at many Levine-directed funerals, has high praise for the company's professionalism, and compassion.

"It's been particularly striking that as they face their own struggle with Joe's health issues, they so beautifully comfort others."

John Eirkson, executive director of the Pennsylvania Funeral Directors Association, based in Harrisburg, credits the Levine family with advancing the goals of the profession, noting that Levine has served on the organization's board of directors for years. "Aside from his professional assets," Eirkson says, "he is known and loved as a thoughtful and generous man."

In a recent commentary in the New York Jewish Week newspaper, Philadelphia native Rabbi David Wolpe, spiritual leader of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, used Levine as an example of the vital work that funeral directors do.

Wolpe cited Levine's "gentle guidance on the emotional front lines day after day."

At his recent Lower Merion High School reunion, attended after his diagnosis, a friend asked Levine whether he had any regrets. "And I told him the truth: Mostly, I don't.

"I have four marvelous children who will carry on our family legacy when they need to. I have met five grandchildren. And I've done work that has made me feel privileged," he said, eyes tearing a bit. "Helping people in their time of need is a special kind of gift."

And almost as if on cue, a cellphone rings, bringing the news that a family friend has died.

"I'll go," Levine says instinctively.

But his sons veto that idea; it's already late in the day, and it has been an emotional one.

For just a moment, Levine seems upset, but then he softens. He recognizes that any one of them can handle the grieving family's needs.

As Jonathon sprints to the door, his father has a parting message: "Make sure you hug the family for me."