A Loewen Insider's Story: Bankruptcy, Betrayal, and Lessons Learned
Hollywood’s movie "The Burial" captures the essence of a real-life legal battle between Jeramiah O’Keefe (an independent funeral homeowner and life insurance pre-planning company) and The Loewen Group’s (the second largest funeral home acquisition company) breach of contract with O’Keefe.
If you haven’t seen the movie, Jamie Foxx and Tommy Lee Jones portray a true story based on a court drama. This happened in the early 1990’s.
It’s about a financially troubled funeral homeowner Jeremiah O'Keefe (played by Tommy Lee), who is forced to sell parts of his business to meet financial demands by the Mississippi State Insurance Commission. He was (and still is) the largest independent funeral homeowner who also owned a life insurance company in order to sell pre-funded funeral plans.
O’Keefe entered into a contract with Raymond Loewen, owner and founder of The Loewen Group, who never followed through on their agreement. O’Keefe hired an attorney out of Florida by the name of Willie Gary, placed by Jamie Fox. Foxx’s character is a cross between Don King and Johnnie Cochran.
As with any movie, some creative liberty with embellishments were taken, however the majority and the story line is true. During this time of my career, I was employed as a National Sales Director for pre-planning in the Midwest during a portion of this time. I wasn't just an observer; I was caught in the whirlwind of ambition, betrayal, and ultimately, devastating consequences. I witnessed first hand the impact of ego, greed, and poor business choices that placed hardship hundreds of lives, one of which is a family member, who also was in executive management.
While watching “The Burial,” it stirred up emotions and memories I had tucked deep away during this tumultuous time.
The Early Days: Promises and Excitement. When The Loewen Group entered the scene, it was like a breath of fresh air. Their leadership team, many of whom I respected and knew personally exuded confidence and optimism. They promised growth, stability, and a brighter future for the death care industry. They offered numerous benefits for a funeral homeowner.
Examples of this were:
• Ability to focus on serving without distractions that come with ownership.
• Removing the financial constraints for facility needs.
• Providing better benefits for employees.
• Taking over all legal, human resource, and staffing requirements.
• Vehicle and merchandise purchasing.
• Business planning and marketing.
• A comprehensive pre-planning program.
• A customized exit strategy for owners.
As an employee, there were extravagant management meetings, generous expense accounts, and excitement in the air. It felt like we were part of something big, something revolutionary. Until the “perfect storm” hit.
Red Flags and Unease. As acquisitions intensified and internal politics flared decisions driven by greed and short-term gains trumped long-term stability and fair play. Over time beneath the successful appearance, cracks in the company’s foundations began to appear. The ethical guiding compass of the company started to wane.
Many employees, including me, started feeling tension, a growing sense of unease, and seeing many red flags. The pressure to promote the company line and prioritize sales figures above all else created a new culture of fear and silence. It didn’t take long to figure out Loewen's facade of success, masked a culture of manipulation and risk.
The Perfect Storm: Betrayal and Collapse. Loewen’s perfect storm was a culmination of many things. However, the breaking point was the trifecta of the O'Keefe lawsuit, hostile takeover attempts, and unsustainable financial practices which diluted Loewen’s stock. These three things brought Loewen to its knees.
Witnessing the financial ruin of so many colleagues, including my own family member, was heartbreaking. The betrayal of trust, the shattered dreams, and the emotional toll were immense. Hundreds of employees and partners lost their retirements, including my own family member. Generational funeral homes crumbled, leaving emptiness in their wake.
Lessons Learned: Trust Your Gut and Stand for What's Right. During this time, I chose to leave the company. In meetings I felt personally targeted as I chose not to fund my 401K with 100% company stock. My career in deathcare was built on relationships, integrity, and trust. I no longer trusted the leadership team. Even worse, I saw acquisitions that in my heart I knew were unrealistic. For me, this violation of trust was reason for my personal escape and not become collateral damage of this sinking ship.
This professional experience validated a crucial lesson: trust your gut. When something feels wrong, it probably is. Don't be afraid to speak up for what's right, even if it means going against the grain. Ultimately, integrity and ethical conduct are far more valuable than any temporary success built on a foundation of sand. Leaving before the bankruptcy protected my future, but the sadness of witnessing such devastation remains.
Sharing My Story: A Call for Ethical Leadership. "The Burial" may be a movie, but the human cost of The Loewen Group's downfall is all too real. My story is not just a cautionary tale; it's a call for ethical leadership in every industry. It's a reminder that chasing profits at the expense of human well-being can have devastating consequences.
By sharing my experiences, I hope to spark a conversation about the importance of integrity, transparency, and responsible business practices. We owe it to ourselves, to our colleagues, and to the communities we serve to build a future where success is measured not just by the bottom line, but by the positive impact we leave on the world.
May we never forget the lessons learned from the ashes of The Loewen Group.
I hope you find these informative articles useful. Please follow my podcast “I Woke Up Dead…Now What?” Streaming on most podcast stations.
Jodi M. Clock is an international speaker and expert on how to help families have a difficult conversation with their loved ones about legacy planning. Having personally witnessed the financial confusion that families endure, especially at an emotionally taxing time, Ms. Clock has centered her career on helping people to understand the options that are available to them. She currently writes and speaks about the basics of Medicaid and asset protection, how to avoid family feuds, end-of-life directives and is a seasoned expert in on pet trusts, as well as their final care. Since 1988 Jodi has worked in the "end-of-life planning" industry including family and corporately owned funeral homes, advance funeral planning companies, casket manufacturers and now practices what she preaches at Clock Funeral Home and Clock Timeless Pets with her husband Dale.