In Amazon Prime Video’s legal drama film ‘The Burial,’ Jeremiah O’Keefe, a Mississippi-based funeral home owner, battles the multi-billion-dollar empire of the Loewen Group, a large funeral home company, over a contract dispute. O’Keefe teams up with Willie E. Gary, one of the most prominent trial lawyers in the country, to sue Raymond “Ray” Loewen’s establishment while seeking a settlement of $100 million. O’Keefe’s principles and values motivate him to fight the battle even when his closest friends doubt his chances to put an end to the same with a victory. His inspiring life journey must have made the viewers wonder whether Jeremiah O’Keefe is based on a real person and where he is now. Well, let us provide the answers!
Jeremiah Joseph O’Keefe III was born on July 12, 1923, in Ocean Springs, Mississippi. His family reportedly had owned the O’Keefe Funeral Homes since the second half of the nineteenth century. He moved to Biloxi at the age of thirteen with his family. While attending Soule Business College, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy and served the force from 1942 to 1943. O’Keefe then served as a fighter pilot with the U.S. Marine Corps until 1945. The soldier was a part of the “Death Rattlers,” the VMF-323 Marine Squadron, as a first lieutenant. He was recognized for destroying five Japanese planes over Okinawa in his first aerial battle.
Along with an ace status, O’Keefe was presented with a Navy Cross for his courageous display over Okinawa. His service to his country continued with his election to the Mississippi State Legislature in 1960. From 1973 to 1981, O’Keefe also served as the Mayor of Biloxi, during which he refused the Ku Klux Klan a permit to hold a discriminatory parade in his jurisdiction.
The Fight Against the Mammoth
O’Keefe, after returning from the force, bought his family business from his father and set up Bradford-O’Keefe Funeral Homes by integrating his major competitor’s business. His business struggled in the 1990s, especially when he faced competition to sell burial insurance. He made contacts with the Loewen Group, which expressed interest in buying three of O’Keefe’s funeral homes. In return, O’Keefe wanted a specific price and a monopoly on selling burial insurance in the region where he operated. Raymond “Ray” Loewen nodded yes to the deal and the World War II veteran signed his end of the contract, only for Loewen to not move forward with the same.
O’Keefe believed that Loewen was waiting for the former to go bankrupt to snatch his assets at a cheaper price. O’Keefe then sued the Loewen Group upon alleging that the company acted “fraudulently and maliciously” and “breached good faith” while engaging in “predatory trade practices.” He joined hands with Willie E. Gary to fight against the mammoth that was the Loewen Group. They won the lawsuit and the jury directed the Loewen Group to pay O’Keefe $500 million in damages.
The Aftermath of the Victory
After the verdict, O’Keefe believed that Loewen would appeal the same. To avoid the complications of an appeal and the possibility of a reversal, he asked Gary to communicate to Loewen’s attorneys that he was ready for a settlement. O’Keefe eventually settled for a sum of $175 million. Using a part of the money, he and his wife Annette founded O’Keefe Foundation to aid local organizations and charitable causes. He generously contributed to the art museum in Biloxi, which was dedicated to the creations of George Ohr, a local art potter. To honor his contribution, the establishment was renamed to Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art.
After O’Keefe’s victory, his business flourished. The Bradford-O’Keefe Funeral Homes, to this day, stands tall as the largest family-owned funeral business in Southern Mississippi. After Annette’s death, he married Martha Peterson O’Keefe. In 2015, at the age of 91, O’Keefe was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian award in the country.
O’Keefe died on August 23, 2016, at the age of 93, at his home in Biloxi. The cause of death was congestive heart failure. He is survived by his wife Martha, four sons, seven daughters, forty grandchildren, and thirty-three great-grandchildren. Until his death, he maintained a warm relationship with Willie Gary, who fought his war against the Loewen Group at the court. O’Keefe is buried at Evergreen Cemetery, located in Ocean Springs, Mississippi.