A good movie drives attention to those stories that didn’t get the attention they deserved, and The Burial is definitely one of them. The film landed on Amazon Prime Video in October 2023 and is based on the true story of the trial between Jeremiah Joseph O’Keefe and the Loewen Group, which reached a verdict in 1995. In that trial, Jeremiah Joseph O’Keefe was represented by Attorney Willie Gary, and that trial really represented a turning point in his career. In this article, we will discover some more interesting things about the real Jeremiah O’Keefe and Willie Gary, who inspired the movie.
The Burial true story: the real Willie Gary & Jeremiah O’Keefe
Yes, the 2023 movie The Burial is based on the true story of the O’Keefe v Loewen trial, which took place in 1995: Jeremiah O’Keefe owned some small funeral houses in Mississippi and went up against the Canadian conglomerate, represented by Willie Gary.
The story behind the case was thoroughly documented on the website theburial.org, based on the information released by the O’Keefe Family. The case started a little before the events in the movie: the initial contrast between Jeremiah O’Keefe and the Loewen Group emerged in 1990, when the Canadian conglomerate entered the Mississippi market, buying the Wright & Ferguson Funeral Home. This funeral home had an exclusive contract with O’Keefe and his Gulf National Life Insurance (GNL), according to which Wright & Ferguson could offer only GNL policies. But when the Loewen Group acquired Wright & Ferguson, they started selling their own policies, breaching the contract.
In 1991, Jeremiah O’Keefe filed a lawsuit against the Loewen Group for violating the terms of that contract. Negotiations started, and an agreement was found between O’Keefe and the group, according to which three funeral homes would be sold to the Loewen Group, the life insurance owned by the Loewen Group would be sold to O’Keefe, and a $11 million fund would be converted into O’Keefe’s policies. However, the Loewen Group didn’t respect that agreement, leading to the trial where Willie Gary represented Jeremiah O’Keefe. All the details are stated on this page on theburial.org.
When Willie Gary was contacted by Jeremiah O’Keefe, he mainly had experience with personal injury cases, but he was known as a talented litigator in court. What’s interesting is that a few days before the start of the trial, O’Keefe made a settlement offer to the Loewen Group of $4 million, but it was rejected. The trial lasted eight weeks, during which Willie Gary succeeded in showing evidence proving how the Loewen Group was increasing the prices in the areas where they had no competition. And besides the apparent antitrust issues, the trial highlighted the racial factor, proving how the Loewen Group negotiated a deal with the black Baptist churches in Tennessee under worse conditions than similar deals negotiated with whites.
As the movie The Burial showed, the jury ruled in favor of O’Keefe on all counts, and the verdict demanded the Loewen Group pay a total of $500 million to O’Keefe for all the damages. According to the information on the website dedicated to the case, the jury voted on awarding a $1 billion verdict to O’Keefe: the approval was denied by just one vote.
After the trial, the two parties agreed on a lower settlement according to which the Loewen Group would pay only $175 million. The Loewen Group survived some years more until filing for bankruptcy in 1999.
Willie Gary and Jeremiah O’Keefe became true friends, as shown in the photo below. In this interview Willie Gary released for USA Today, he said: “Jerry was the finest father figure I’ve ever met in my life, and that’s including a lot of people. I just feel lucky to have called him a friend.”
Jeremiah O’Keefe died in 2016, and, as you can see in articles like this one on the New York Times, he was mainly remembered as a World War 2 hero and a beloved politician. Willie Gary is still alive when the movie The Burial was released, and as stated on his official website, he’s famous as the “Giant killer” after winning sensational cases against some of America’s biggest corporate giants.
You can watch Willie Gary in the video below, promoting his talent as a personal injury attorney.