Family funeral home business faces new challenges

Michael Blasberg is the director of Levitt Weinstein Memorial Chapels & Cemeteries in Hollywood, Fla., on July 30, 2014. Blasberg's family has been in the business for three generations, and he is adapting a funeral home business to a changing landscape. (Mike Stocker/Sun Sentinel/MCT)

Michael Blasberg will tell you he loves to talk. But in his job as a third-generation funeral director, he also recognizes the importance of listening.

"It's a people business and I like people," he said. "I don't know if I ever thought about doing anything else."

Blasberg is the funeral director at Levitt Weinstein Memorial Chapel & Cemeteries in Hollywood, Fla. It's one of the company's five locations.

Running a funeral home is a family affair for Blasberg. His grandfather opened a funeral home in Miami Beach in the 1950s, which he owned until it was sold upon his death in 1960.

His father Larrie opened another home in 1965. Blasberg and his brother Ira – who now works as a funeral director at the company's location in Miami Beach – helped out at the business while they were growing up and eventually took more active roles in its management.

Plenty has changed in 50-something years. Caring for their clients, at a most difficult time, has always been top priority. That's still the case today, no matter what the need.

Even when it comes to identity theft.

That's a topic Blasberg's grandfather probably never thought about. But in 2014, it's a big issue in South Florida. The tri-county area is No. 1 in the nation in ID theft, with 340 cases per 100,000 residents, according to the Federal Trade Commission.

Even people who have just died are identity targets. So Blasberg and his company are doing something about it.

In order to combat the issue, Levitt Weinstein has been coordinating with the Broward Sheriff's Office to offer seminars to families on how to cope with identity theft of deceased persons.

"We're hoping to show families how to identify some red flags of identity theft, as well as how to cope with it if it happens to them," Blasberg said.

Caring for people has been a family tradition, even when it came to their competition. Lending a hand is what they do. Back in the day, another nearby chapel – Rubin Zilbert – was owned by Murray Rubin and his father-in-law Lenny Zilbert.

"We were always friendly competitors," Blasberg said. "But if Murray went out of town, I would fill in for him."

During the 1990s, the Blasberg Chapel was merged with Rubin Zilbert Chapel. Today, both homes are owned by the Houston-based Northstar Memorial Group, and the former competitors still work alongside one another, Blasberg said.

Despite changes in ownership, what has remained constant is the business' focus on the community.

"It's always been a family business that we ran on our own," he said. "I laugh with people, I cry with people. If I stopped crying, I might as well quit."

He has no intention of quitting any time soon, but he has learned to change with the times.

The business faces competition from new sources. Nowadays, some websites allow customers to plan an entire funeral online. You can even buy a casket at superstores such as Costco.

It's become more important to offer more personalized services and memorials than he did in the past, Blasberg said. He says such individual attention has been the key to attracting and maintaining customers at Levitt Weinstein.

"People are buying us," he said. "There's value to who you work with."

Marc Rubin, area sales director for Levitt Weinstein, said a funeral homes' ability to speak to clients in person allows them to remain competitive with the online vendors.

"We tell people, 'Your loved one is not a product,'" he said. "You really need to come in and talk to the people you're going to be doing business with."

If clients want to, Levitt Weinstein allows them to design their own headstones, decorating them to represent their loved ones' interests, ranging from golf to ballet dancing or their favorite sports team.

When clients pitch ideas, Blasberg said, "we don't like to say no."

Still, Levitt Weinstein has adapted to the Internet age, offering to create memorial websites for clients and live-stream funeral services online. Its also seen an uptick in pre-planned funerals, which allow people to personally plan their own funerals and pre-purchase them at their current cost.

"It really benefits the families," Blasberg said. "It's not easy to make decisions at the worst time of your life."

The dying part is never easy. Even after decades in the business, "you don't get used to it," he said.

"But when you look over letters and testimonials, it makes you realize why you do what you do," he said.


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