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Death is hard enough, but add mass casualties, a controversial figure, and taboo around non-natural forms of death, and the challenge is much greater. This was the situation that government officials, family members, and the public were faced with in 1978 when 909 people died at the settlement called “Jonestown” in Guyana in South America.

The Peoples Temple, the group who created Jonestown, were led by Jim Jones, who ushered his followers to a “revolutionary suicide.” This sparked the question of who should be memorialized and the forms of memorialization, particularly around new religious movements.

The events at Jonestown are well-documented elsewhere, but the story did not end with the so-called “White Night.” Hundreds of people, most of whom were United States citizens, were dead and needed to be taken care of. The media coverage, the taboo around their mass death, and logistical and bureaucratic barriers meant that it would take many months for the members of the Peoples Temple to have a final resting place and many years before their names were memorialized at the site.

This debate raised questions about the purposes and importance of memorialization for both the leaders and followers of new religious movements.

The Jonestown Massacre and the Unclaimed Dead: What Happened to the Jonestown Bodies?

Photo taken by FBI agents in Jonestown following the Jonestown massacre of November 18, 1978.

Fear of the Jonestown Dead

David Chidester describes the transport of the people of Jonestown to Delaware as the first ritual of exclusion that they would undergo in their deaths. Their adopted home of Guyana, the site for their dream of a utopian community, did not want to house them, and they were sent back to the United States. Once they arrived, there were no official death certificates for any of the over 900 people.

Death certificates play an important role in the American death ritual, which remains a largely bureaucratic system. The governor and state legislature of Delaware determined that identified and claimed bodies could be taken from Dover Air Force Base, but not buried in Delaware, while unidentified bodies could not be removed at all.

 These measures may indicate a desire to cleanse the memory of these individuals. 

While the reticence to release and bury bodies may have been about the death certificates, it was also about the taboo. There was a lot of fear that the people of Jonestown would be buried in a mass grave, perhaps attracting other members of the Peoples Temple to visit and make the site a type of pilgrimage destination. Labeled as a “cult,” there was fear of generating unwanted attention. Further, there was the taboo associated with the mass suicide of the people.

Government officials in Dover suggested that perhaps the people be cremated and scattered at sea, far away from the land that could be contaminated.

Entrance to Jonestown. Image via Jonestown Institute

The taboo associated with both mass suicide and “cults,” or new religious movements, is also present when we examine the mass suicides in 1997 of Heaven’s Gate and the events in 1993 involving the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas. The death toll associated with these groups was much smaller, which may have affected burial and memorialization. However, both leaders of Heaven’s Gate, Bonnie Nettles and Marshall Applewhite, were cremated. David Koresh, the leader of the Branch Davidians, was buried, but his grave was not marked for some time after his death, likely to discourage visitation. These measures may indicate a desire to cleanse the memory of these individuals.

Where Should The Jonestown Dead Go?

January 1977 photo by Nancy Wong of REV. Jim Jones

Ultimately, 412 unclaimed bodies remained at Dover Air Force Base, with a firm stance from the government there that they would not bury them on Delaware soil. The other nearly 500 people had been claimed by their family and cremated or buried in other locations. Many of the bodies remained unclaimed because families couldn’t afford the military transport fees – $500 in 1978 – required for a private burial.

 The inclusion of Jones on the memorial stone sparked several lawsuits, but it was ultimately decided that his name would remain. 

The Peoples Temple had history in many places, but much of it was in the San Francisco Bay Area. In 1979, interfaith leaders in San Francisco created The Guyana Emergency Relief Committee to determine next steps for the people of Jonestown. In their discussions, the Emergency Relief Committee decided that mass cremation was not an acceptable option for the Jonestown dead. Many of the individuals who died at Jonestown were Black Americans, who they argued strongly prefer burial to cremation. Once this was arranged, the bodies who remained unclaimed by family were shipped from Dover to the San Francisco area in May 1979. They were interred after a 30-day waiting period for loved ones to claim the deceased, 8 months after their deaths.

Oakland’s Evergreen Cemetery

US military personnel stack coffins containing the remains of the victims of the Jonestown tragedy for transport to Dover Air Force Base, Delaware.

The members of the Peoples Temple who died at Jonestown and remained unclaimed were finally laid to rest in Oakland’s Evergreen Cemetery in a group grave of 410 unclaimed bodies. In the years following, roughly 20 more people were buried as close to the grave as possible, both full bodies and cremains. The Emergency Relief Committee placed a simple gravestone that read “In memory of the victims of the Jonestown tragedy.” But there was a call for greater memorialization.

In 2008, enough money was raised to place two black granite stones to list some of the victims’ names and ages. In May 2011, the funds were raised to add two more stones to complete the list of all the people who died at Jonestown, both those buried there and not. This list includes, controversially, the leader Jim Jones. Jones had been cremated in New Jersey and his ashes scattered in the Atlantic Ocean. The inclusion of Jones on the memorial stone sparked several lawsuits, but it was ultimately decided that his name would remain.

The memorial works to counter the exclusion of the Peoples Temple members who died at Jonestown. Even today, gatherings are held by survivors and family members who were connected to the tragedy.

The Ethics of Memorialization

Memorial gravesite for the unclaimed bodies (and all the names) of the victims of the Jonestown mass killing in 1978. Evergreen Cemetery, Oakland, California. Image via Mercury Wood Rose

When you visit the memorial today, it is a quiet place. There aren’t people crowding around the site, but it’s clear that the people are honored. There are fresh flowers, left by someone who remembers a loved one or the tragedy in general, perhaps.

The controversy of what to do with the Jonestown dead is centered on the notions of taboo around speaking about death, particularly “bad” deaths, as well as the taboo surrounding new religious movements, despite most of these groups being peaceful.

It raises the question of who should be memorialized. Jones himself was a central figure in this debate–whether or not to include his name alongside his followers. Some of this hinges on what memorialization is meant to do. Memorialization can both honor and historicize the dead, but does everyone deserve remembrance?

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