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The Burial: A Film Based on Real Events in the Funeral Industry

Films aren’t usually made about the funeral home industry, but it’s the focus of the movie The Burial. Read about the real-life events that inspired the film.
The Burial: Jamie Foxx, Tommy Lee Jones
The Burial: Jamie Foxx, Tommy Lee Jones

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Rarely is there a film that takes an in-depth look at the funeral industry, so the new movie The Burial will likely get a fair amount of attention. The film stars some big-name actors that portray real-life characters who get caught up in a lawsuit that ends up being a landmark case for funeral homes across the country.

Keep reading for an overview of what happened to the real characters, and how the film captures the story of a small family-owned funeral home that took on a mega-corporation. 

A Funeral Industry Film That’s Based on True Events

The Burial stars Tommy Lee Jones as Jeremiah “Jerry” O’Keefe, a funeral home owner in Biloxi, Mississippi. Before becoming a funeral home director, O’Keefe was a Marine and fighter pilot during WWII that earned the Navy Cross. To say he had resilience is an understatement. O’Keefe was also a Mississippi state representative and the mayor of Biloxi for eight years prior to owning funeral homes. 

O’Keefe was a very justice-driven man. He was outspoken about racial injustice and an advocate of civil rights. He was even able to get a business fraternity to change their policies on minority membership while in college. Then in the 1970s as mayor, O’Keefe took a stand against the Ku Klux Klan, denying them a permit that would have allowed them to hold a parade through Biloxi. It was a decision that led to a cross being burned in his yard and death threats, but it didn’t shake O’Keefe’s resolve or moral character.

The O’Keefe family was very charitable. Jerry was a philanthropist for much of his life and active in bettering his community. He and his first wife Anette even founded the O’Keefe Foundation to support local charities and organizations.

O’Keefe bought the family business, O’Keefe Funeral Homes, from his father in 1953. Within just five years he established a life insurance company and also bought out a major competitor forming Bradford-O’Keefe Funeral Homes. 

The Lawsuit That Led to the Movie

For the next 35 years O’Keefe led a normal, quiet life in Biloxi. But then in 1995, O’Keefe made headlines by launching a lawsuit against the mega corporation Loewen Group. The Loewen Group, owned by Ray Loewen, was using its sizable coffers to buy out and acquire small funeral homes in different markets. They would then drop prices to drive out smaller local funeral homes only to significantly increase prices once the competition went out of business. 

At that time, Jerry O’Keefe owned eight funeral homes in the Biloxi area, but it was his life insurance company that led to the lawsuit. O’Keefe had a contractual agreement as a life insurance provider for a funeral home in Jackson, MS that was acquired by the Loewen Group. The latter quickly terminated the agreement so that they could sell life insurance through another company that they had also acquired. 

That led to the first lawsuit for breach of contract in 1991. O’Keefe and the Loewen Group reached a settlement, but by 1995 another lawsuit was initiated because the Loewen Group didn’t adhere to the agreement. Ray Loewen was taking his time in hopes that O’Keefe would go bankrupt after a deal went wrong that involved o’Keefe’s life insurance company. Instead, O’Keefe sold off four of his funeral homes to make ends meet and prepared to take the dispute to court. 

Jamie Foxx plays the part of Willie E. Gary, the slick attorney that O’Keefe hires to help sue the Loewen Group of Canada. Foxx looks strikingly similar to the flamboyant Gary, who has also led an impressive life. Gary grew up in poverty, but that didn’t stop him from becoming a highly successful lawyer. He leveraged his athletic abilities to earn a scholarship to Shaw University. In addition to being the co-captain of the college’s football team, Gary also started a landscaping business to support himself while he earned a degree. He continued running his business throughout law school as well. Shortly after becoming a lawyer, Gary opened his own law office. 

How true to life the film is remains to be seen. When a film is loosely based on what happens in real life, the writers and director often take liberties to create a story that makes the movie more compelling. So much so, characters can be introduced that weren’t a part of the actual events. That’s the case in The Burial. The character Mame Downes, a female lawyer who represents the Loewen Group, didn’t exist in real life although the character is based on one of the corporation’s male lawyers.  

But judging by the trailer, The Burial is sure to be a compelling film with interesting characters. And it’s definitely a story worth telling. Today, the death care industry is changing, but there are still concerns over mega corporations buying out small family-owned funeral homes and the negative impact it could have on the communities they serve. 

No matter how the film depicts the lawsuit and people who were a part of it, one thing is certain. Jerry O’Keefe was an exemplary citizen and funeral home director who’s story is worth seeing on the big screen. 

How to Watch the Film The Burial

Want to see how the O’Keefe vs Loewen Group case plays out in court? The Burial is being released in movie theaters on October 6, 2023. The film is produced by Amazon Studios, so you’ll also be able to watch it streaming through Amazon Prime Video starting October 13, 2023. 

You can watch the official movie trailer for The Burial on YouTube.

If watching The Burial brings questions to mind about the funeral industry or specific funeral services, give Cremation.Green a call, text or email. We’re happy to answer any questions you have, help you make advanced funeral arrangements or arrange green funeral services for a loved one. 

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Marlaena Gonzales

Funeral Director
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