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Barbara Levine, 58, heart at center of funeral home

BARBARA LEVINE BARBARA LEVINE
By Bryan Marquard
Globe Staff / July 1, 2011

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Though her name carried the expectations of being the fourth generation in the funeral business, Barbara Levine did not want attention focused on her as she ran Levine Chapels, which her great-grandfather founded in 1893.

Colleagues knew better. When working with families on funeral arrangements, they went out of their way to introduce Ms. Levine. The briefest of greetings made a profound impression.

“The joke we have here is that whenever we get a thank you note, it always begins, ‘Dear Barbara,’ ’’ said Tony Massaroni, general manager of Levine Chapels in Brookline. “We’d say, ‘Oh, look, Barbara, you got another thank-you note.’ She’d say, ‘Oh, my God, I literally just walked in to say hello to them,’ and she got the note. But that was her. She had a personality that was bigger than she ever wanted to be.’’

Ms. Levine, who joined her family’s business 28 years ago and worked to bring more female funeral directors into a profession dominated by men, died of ovarian cancer Wednesday in her Brookline home. She was 58.

“One thing was so unusual about her,’’ said her brother Richard of North Hollywood, Calif. “Here she dealt with death all the time, but she was one of the most joyful people I’ve ever known. She was just such a real person and embraced life so fully.’’

That was true when she helped families deal with the death of a loved one and true when she faced the illness that would end her life.

“She loved people and loved giving to people,’’ said her brother Jerry of Brookline. “If she could do something that would make someone’s life happier, she did it.’’

On the eve of hospital stays for extensive chemotherapy, he said, she would “bake brownies and cookies and bring them in to all the nurses and go around the floor giving them out.’’

Just as generous with empathy and understanding, Ms. Levine ensured that compassion played a bigger role in the business she took over from her father, Paul Levine, who died in 2003.

“We hardly ever talked about death with our father; it was just considered too scary and unseemly,’’ Jerry said. “My sister was more open and tried to take away fears of dying. She spent hours and hours with people and really got to know them.’’

At work, “she felt that if you could not provide families with the cushion and comfort they needed when they performed this last act, then you’ve done nothing for them,’’ said Ms. Levine’s wife, Lori Griffiths, a former funeral director at Levine Chapels.

Ms. Levine initially pursued nursing, taking up the family trade after graduate studies and several years of hospital work.

“Both fields were so intrinsically right for her because she was such a caring individual,’’ Richard said. “She had such a deep mission from the beginning to help in a very selfless way.’’

The second of four children, Ms. Levine grew up in Newton and graduated from Newton South High School in 1970.

“The seeds of her compassionate nature were present even when she was young,’’ Richard said. “Words that come to mind in describing her would be compassionate, generous, ebullient, radiant, strong, and deeply empathic. I think what made her so good at her work was her ability to connect to people in a very empathic way. She really felt for people.’’

Those traits brought her first to nursing, which she studied at the University of Vermont in Burlington, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in 1974.

Two years later, she received a master’s in geriatric nursing from Yale University in New Haven.

After working for a year in Chicago, she returned to Boston and spent several years at Beth Israel Hospital.

By 1983, her father was in his early 60s, and her brothers were disinclined to become the next generation in the family business. The prospect of a woman taking over, however, meant certain challenges were a given.

Initially, “she was not looked upon kindly in the funeral business,’’ said Massaroni, who studied the mortuary business with Ms. Levine at the New England Institute of Applied Arts and Sciences in Boston.

“When she went into the funeral home, she was really a pioneer as a woman in the funeral business,’’ Jerry said. “Particularly the Orthodox Jews were very skittish about women. My father was concerned about that. He didn’t want to alienate the Orthodox community and even canvassed some of the rabbis to see if it was OK, to see if it was kosher. But my father loved her and realized what a gem she was, and the community caught on.’’

At Levine Chapels, Richard said, “she wasn’t afraid of bringing an emotionality to the profession while still being a professional. She didn’t have to be buttoned up and reserved.’’

“When we were in school together,’’ Massaroni said, “the funeral industry was still an old boys’ network, and there really wasn’t a lot of compassion in the business. For Barbara, it was never a business first; it was always about heart. She was a brilliant businesswoman, but what she brought to this company was compassion.’’

She also did that with her family. Her mother, Sylvia (Sandler) Levine of Newton, said “she was the best daughter.’’

In 2004, Ms. Levine married Griffiths and they raised four children together, three from Griffiths’ previous marriage and a daughter they adopted. Ms. Levine emphasized the importance of colleagues spending time with their families, too.

“She truly was just one of the most caring human beings that I’ve ever known, right to the end,’’ Massaroni said. “She wanted to make sure that her families, meaning her biological family and her Levine Chapels family, were taken care of, and she took care of all of us right to the end.’’

In addition to her wife, mother, and two brothers, Ms. Levine leaves three daughters, Jennie of Brookline, Alexis Diamond of Fairlee, Vt., and Jamie Kate Diamond of Brookline; a son, William Diamond of Santa Monica, Calif.; another brother, Peter of Bel Air, Calif.; and a granddaughter.

A memorial service will be held at 10 a.m. today in Levine Chapels in Brookline. Burial will be in Walnut Hills Cemetery in Brookline.

“When she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, one of the first things she did was turn to me and say: ‘Why should I be special and not get this? Is there something special about me that I shouldn’t get diagnosed?’ And then she fought,’’ her wife said. “She tried every kind of chemo imaginable.’’

Ms. Levine believed in living passionately at work, at home, or engaging with her own health struggles, Griffiths said.

“It was always about lives loved and lives lived,’’ Griffiths said, “and she really carried that with her.’’

Bryan Marquard can be reached at bmarquard@globe.com.