The Burial: A Film About the Downfall of Steinbach’s Own Funeral Tycoon Ray Loewen

Andrew and I recently watched The Burial starring Jamie Foxx and Tommy Lee Jones, based on a true story, and the villain, drum roll … is Ray Loewen of Steinbach.

Wait what?

When I was a kid, there was only one funeral home in town — Loewen. This was true until they suddenly went away in the late 90s and Birchwood, a co-op, emerged as an alternative. That was the extent of my Loewen Funeral Chapel awareness. So, yeah, I knew basically nothing.

Not so for the previous generations of Steinbachers. They were aware of Ray Loewen, they remembered him from school. I, however, just have a foggy memory of the funeral parlour. Otherwise, my only knowledge comes from this plaque in Steinbach describing the beginning of the Loewen funeral business in the 1930s:

The plaque says: “LOEWEN – In 1932, Abraham Toews Loewen (1893-1970) founded Loewen Funeral Home and in 1939, the first permanent structure was built on this site. It was the first funeral home in Steinbach and southeastern Manitoba, serving families of all faiths. It was in use until destroyed by fire in 1976. He lived nearby with his first wife Helena Ratzlaff (1890-1937) and his second wife Elizabeth Loewen (1903-1978) and their children. A man with strong community spirit and Christian values, A.T. was a co-founder of the Steinbach Credit Union and an active Gideon.”

After doing a little reading, I found out that one of the aforementioned children of AT Loewen was Ray, who took over the business in the 1960s and eventually founded the Loewen Funeral Group, which by the 1990s had become the second-largest funeral home company in the world. By this time Ray was based in Vancouver and the company, so I’ve read, owned more than 1000 funeral homes. With Ray Loewen in charge, they were buying up struggling funeral homes all across the United States. 

The movie depicts Ray as a classic Hollywood villain. Not like the Joker … but more like, umm, Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network or Gordon Gekko in Wall Street. Ruthless. Money-obsessed. Uncaring. Unethical. Not at all like the description given to his father on the plaque. How accurate this is, I have no idea. It’s a movie, so I assume the truth is a bit more nuanced. Anyway, The Burial does not really discuss Ray’s past or tell much of his biography at all. Instead, it’s a court-room drama that focuses on one particular breach of contract lawsuit in the mid-1990s, a seemingly small court case in Mississippi that snowballed into something that eventually brought about the downfall of the entire company. As the film depicts it, anyway, it’s a David and Goliath story, with discussions of race, economics, and politics.

There’s a lot I don’t know about American law and trials of this sort. In fact, while the film was entertaining, it didn’t do a great job of explaining how on earth such a seemingly small lawsuit could result in damages of $500 million. There’s a certain irony, I would say, in that the opening scene depicts personal injury attorney Willie E. Gary arguing (in a different case) that his client should not be judged on the content of his character or on anything else other than the facts of the case, and then subsequently basing almost his entire case against Ray Loewen with an attack on Ray’s character. Of course, this is just how the film depicts it. I really don’t know how these things work. But the movie almost raises more questions than it answers.

Still it is entertaining and I will also say, we found it hilarious to hear Jamie Foxx and Tommy Lee Jones constantly talking about how they’re gonna “get that Loewen Group” or “we’re gonna take down that Ray Loewen.” These were not intended as comedic scenes, but as someone from Steinbach it’s hard to take the name Loewen seriously … as a Hollywood villain anyway.

For all its flaws, it’s probably worth checking out and you can watch The Burial right now on Amazon Prime.