The Burial


The Story of O’Keefe v. Loewen

In the real world, no one expects the underdog to win. That’s exactly why these stories of triumph – the “little guy” coming out on top – are so powerful. The Burial is one such story.
Unlike most of the underdog stories that make it on film, this one is rooted in reality. Not just reality but our home, the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Since 1865, Bradford-O’Keefe Funeral Homes have been serving the families of the Coast with an unmatched care and commitment to honoring our loved ones, but things weren’t always easy for the small business.

Inspired by these true events, The Burial tells the tale of a funeral home owner, Bradford-Okeefe’s own Jeremiah “Jerry” O’Keefe, who enlists the help of a charismatic personal injury lawyer, Willie E. Gary, to help save his family business from a corporate behemoth, exposing a complex web of race, power, and injustice.

I and a few of our staff members were blessed to have been invited to an early screening of The Burial, distributed by Amazon Prime Video, last month, and I cannot recommend it highly enough. Although aspects of the story were dramatized for the big screen, I was amazed by just how much of the movie hit home. We in the theater experienced the emotional turbulence of the courtroom, navigated the complexities of social injustices past and present, and rejoiced for O’Keefe’s victory as though it were our own. The emotion was palpable, and made all the more special by the story’s real and tangible roots to the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

The movie is now available on Amazon Prime, and whether you’ve already watched it or haven’t yet had a chance to see it, the watch is made even more enjoyable when you read more about the true events of the trial. The O’Keefe family has provided a website with tons of amazing information on the case, as well as differences between the true events and those portrayed in the film. Here are but a few of the stand out facts versus fiction from the website,


​• Jerry O’Keefe was a decorated World War II veteran. He served as a Marine fighter pilot, notching seven enemy kills and becoming an ace in the Battle of Okinawa. As mayor of Biloxi, he denied the Klu Klux Klan a parade permit. His mayoral office was subsequently vandalized and a cross was burned on the lawn of his home.
• O’Keefe and his wife Annette, at the time of the trial, had 13 children and 38 grandchildren.
• Hal Dockins was an attorney for O’Keefe based in Jackson, Mississippi. He suggested that O’Keefe retain Willie Gary for the trial team after the Loewen Group retained two prominent black attorneys for its team. However, O’Keefe never watched Gary in court before retaining him.
• Willie Gary did fly back and forth from his Florida home to Jackson, Mississippi, in his personal plane called The Wings of Justice. He had not handled a contract law case prior to the Loewen lawsuit.
• The movie accurately portrays the suffering which bereaved people experience in towns where there is no competition among funeral homes. Funeral home monopolies are able to raise prices for their goods and services far higher than they charge in locations where there is competition.
• Both Jerry O’Keefe and Ray Loewen testified. Evidence repeatedly showed that Loewen raised prices significantly after purchasing local funeral homes. In some instances, consumers in captive markets – where there was only one funeral home in town – faced especially steep price increases.
• Arguably, one of the most explosive revelations involved the spectre of racism. The Loewen Group did negotiate a lucrative deal with the network of black Baptist churches based in Tennessee, the National Baptist Convention (NBC). The deal was negotiated without any legal counsel to advocate on behalf of the NBC, and it appeared to give black business partners of Loewen less favorable terms than whites.
• The jury’s award included $100 million for actual damages suffered by the plaintiffs and an additional $400 million in punitive damages. At the time, it was the largest verdict in the state of Mississippi and one of the largest in the nation.
• After compensating their attorneys and replenishing the finances of their businesses, the O’Keefes undertook a wide-ranging divestment to family and charitable giving. A key part of this giving included the formation of the O’Keefe Foundation to support mental health causes, the disabled, Catholic charities, the African-American community, and the arts.

• The O’Keefe family’s personal finances were never under duress, and ending cable service as a cost-cutting measure was an embellishment for dramatic effect in the movie plot.
• The movie ignores the strength of O’Keefe’s contract claims and the film’s producers and promoters have mischaracterized the underlying case as “a handshake deal gone wrong.”
• Michael Cavanaugh of Biloxi, Mississippi, not Mike Allred, was O’Keefe’s personal and corporate attorney for 30 years. Cavanaugh has worked personally and publicly against racism in Mississippi.
• Allred was never O’Keefe’s personal counsel. He served as counsel and later co-counsel on the Loewen case. He did not appear on the witness standing during the trial. According to an article in The New Yorker, he said during the pre-trial phase that he recognized his own prejudice and was consciously trying to address it.
• Gary was never removed from the lead counsel role, nor did any of his Florida team leave and go back home.
• The lead attorney for the Loewen Group was a man, not the female Mame Downes as the film portrays.
• The cross-examination scene of Jerry O’Keefe is one of the most fictionalized segments of the movie. O’Keefe never removed or used reserves from his insurance company (the “people’s money,” which underwrites the company’s liabilities to its policyholders) for personal gain or illegal purposes.
• Ray Loewen never met face-to-face with O’Keefe to discuss a settlement. O’Keefe never rejected an offer of $75 million, nor did he seek at any point to put the Loewen Group out of business. Had the Loewen Group been forced immediately into bankruptcy, its ability to pay out a settlement would have been jeopardized.

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