A new movie featuring Hollywood stars Jamie Foxx and Tommy Lee Jones, has close connections in Steinbach.
The Burial is loosely based on a true story. The film follows Jeremiah Joseph O’Keefe, a small-town funeral home director from Mississippi, and his unconventional lawyer Willie E. Gary as they take on a large funeral corporation called The Loewen Group and their C.E.O. Ray Loewen.
Ray Loewen happens to be from Steinbach.
Steinbach's Elbert Toews says in the 1960’s Ray took over his father Abraham’s funeral home the Loewen Funeral Chapel in Steinbach, and eventually built an empire with over 1,000 funeral homes in 1990’s.
Though the creators of The Burial certainly took creative liberties, Toews says it was very interesting watching a film about a story that hits so close to home.
“Obviously, I was pretty excited about it. I knew the background story to it and what had happened in the court case and all the rest of it before, but never presented as it was in the film itself. So, that was a great experience.”
Andrew Unger from The Unger Review, formerly The Daily Bonnet, says it was a good movie, but it was odd to hear a Mennonite last name featured so prominently.
“It's a serious movie, it's a courtroom drama, it's not a comedy but it was sort of strange to keep hearing these people talking about, 'we're going to get that Loewen. Oh, that Loewen, we're going to take down that Loewen’. As a Steinbacher, to hear people say that it's hard to take those scenes seriously when they're using that name as bad villain.”
Because Ray Loewen moved to BC in the late 1960’s, Toews says Steinbach was never mentioned in The Burial. That said, he agrees with Andrew Unger, noting it is odd to be connected with the antagonist of the story.
“That's sort of neat in a way and yet to be identified in this particular way as the villain in a court case like this who would be sued, obviously it is extremely dramatic and negative in a sense on the Loewen Group themselves and that is a bit of a hard thing for Steinbach to swallow.”
All that said, Toews says there is a silver lining to this story.
He notes Birchwood Funeral Chapel was founded in the 1990s as a reaction to the monopolization and price gouging in the funeral industry by companies like the Loewen Group.
“While they expanded their business, they went to the various funeral homes and cemetery sites and bought up these places.” He says they often left the previous owners in place but directed how they operated, adding “that caused the prices to go sky high.”
Elbert Toews was one of the founding members of the Birchwood Funeral Chapel.
“Our group in Steinbach, the ones that I met with, we were all of the mind that this has to change. We can't let corporate greed, these high prices take over the lives of people who are suffering. We were a motley crew of people that were meeting from different walks of life, but our one common determination was 'what can we do to stop this from happening?' We realized that a Co-op is probably the only way you're going to do it.”
The original group of people that met to create the Birchwood Funeral Coop were Dietrich Wiebe, Peter Friesen, John Blatz, John Neufeld, Neil Epp, Larry Wiebe, and Elbert Toews. Toews says “This is sort of a good news story followed on the heels of a bad news story.”
The mission statement for Birchwood Funeral Chapel, service with dignity, integrity and care and at fair prices, was set in the 1990’s and remains to this day.
The following paragraph includes multiple spoilers from The Burial.
At the end of the trial depicted in The Burial, the jury awarded O’Keefe $500M. Unable to afford an appeal, Loewen settled with O’Keefe for $175M which led to the downturn in the company’s fortunes. In 1998, Ray Loewen sold his shares in the Loewen Group and in 1999, the company filed for bankruptcy.
In fairness, Toews says Ray Loewen’s family was instrumental in the development of Steinbach having moved into the area in 1884 when Steinbach was just a village. He notes Ray’s father and four uncles were responsible for starting companies like Loewen Windows, C.T. Loewen, Loewen Autobody, and of course, the Loewen Funeral Chapel.
“We would not be the center of southeastern Manitoba, in my opinion, if it hadn't been for them. They made such huge contributions. So, the fact that one of the parties went the route they did and became a corporate monster is devastating in a way, but nevertheless should not darken the fact that that family had contributed very well to this community.”
Andrew Unger adds it is a very interesting story, yet it feels a little like something he would have made up as a satire.
He jokes “I was disappointed that this Mennonite funeral movie didn’t have any raisin buns, pickles, they didn’t have the open mic session, none of that stuff was in there. You are going to make a Mennonite funeral movie and remove all that stuff? Not accurate at all!”