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Mass death at Jonestown remembered at annual memorial

on November 19, 2014

This week, Bay Area residents are remembering one of the largest mass deaths in history—the 1978 Jonestown tragedy. On Tuesday, which marked the 36th anniversary of the event, about 50 people attended a memorial service in Oakland, where many victims once lived. The ceremony was held at the Evergreen Cemetery, where more than 400 victims are buried, including remains that were recently discovered in a former funeral home in Delaware.

More American lives were lost at Jonestown than at any other non-natural disaster until the attacks on September 11, 2001. At Tuesday’s memorial, mourners and those connected to the tragedy said they still struggle to make sense of what happened. “It’s an enigma,” said Dr. Jynona Norwood, a Los Angeles-based pastor and founder and president of the Guyana Tribute Foundation and Cherish the Children Project, which organizes the annual memorial and advocates on behalf of victims’ surviving relatives. Norwood lost many relatives in the genocide, including her mother, Fairy Norwood, and a three-month old cousin, Charles Henderson, Jr. “People just don’t understand why so many went to Jonestown … why Jim Jones felt a need to murder the people who gave him all of their money, all of their love and their children and trusted him with their lives,” she said, standing next to four plaques bearing the names of all the victims.

Most of the victims were members of the People’s Temple, an American religious organization based in San Francisco and led by Jim Jones. Jones’ new age church preached racial and gender equality and provided many medical and social welfare programs, like free dining halls and drug rehabilitation. His progressive teachings attracted followers of all ages, races and economic backgrounds, many from Oakland, San Francisco and across California. Before long, Jones was a prominent figure is San Francisco, becoming involved in local politics and hobnobbing with dignitaries like Jerry Brown and then-San Francisco city supervisor Diane Feinstein. But as the congregation grew, reports of coercion began to cast a shadow over the People’s Temple, and Jones worried that the negative publicity could lead to defection of members.

In the mid-1970s Jones sent some of his followers to Guyana to begin building facilities that could accommodate the church members. Between 1976 and 1977, to avoid the media and investigations into his church, Jones and nearly 1,000 of his followers relocated to a compound located on 3,800 acres in the Guyanese jungle. The community included sixty cottages, a clinic, a kitchen, dining hall, two schoolhouses and a large pavilion for public forums. There the group planned to establish a utopian community built on socialist policies and a communal lifestyle.

But when claims of physical and sexual abuse at the compound made their way back to the U.S., California Congressman Leo Ryan decided to investigate. On November 18, 1978, a few days after arriving in Guyana, Ryan and his entourage were shot and killed by Jones’ guardsmen as they attempted to free defectors from the People’s Temple. The same day, Jones ordered his followers at the compound to ingest a cyanide-laced drink, resulting in the deaths of 913 people, including more than 300 children, many of them infants.

The mass death made international headlines and left many of the victims’ families dejected and confused. Norwood has held a service every November 18 at the Evergreen memorial since the first anniversary in 1979.

The remains of more than 400 Jonestown victims rest at the Evergreen cemetery, located on a hill overlooking Oakland and the San Francisco Bay. The cemetery also recently acquired at least two more sets of remains after nine unidentified victims’ ashes were found inside a former funeral home in Dover, Delaware in August. After the Minus Funeral home was foreclosed upon last summer, a bank employee stumbled upon the containers of ashes, labeled as victims of Jonestown, but with no personal identifications. It’s unclear how exactly the remains ended up at this particular funeral home.

Norwood said the remains that were brought to the Evergreen cemetery were those of adults, the youngest just 20 years old. “How, for 36 years and labeled as Jonestown victims, can those not have been released back to the families?” she asked.

Jonestown is by far the most notorious mass death in recent history, but there have been others. In 1997, nearly 39 members of the Heaven’s Gate cult committed mass suicide in San Diego, and three years later, hundreds of bodies were found in a home in Uganda. Victims of the Ugandan mass death were followers of the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God, with the final death count at about 800 people, including more than 100 children.

Experts say cults and religious organizations are very complex, and predicting violence within such groups today is difficult. “I think there are groups that might turn to violence,” said Rebecca Moore, professor of Religious Studies at San Diego State University. “But I don’t think they would turn to it the same way it happened in People’s Temple, because the dynamics within each organization is unique.” Moore said there are a number of factors that might contribute to a group initiating violence, either directed at their members or others, including the health of the leader, the financial security of the group and how dissidence is handled. In Jonestown, dissent was strongly discouraged and many victims were forced to drink cyanide at gunpoint.

As years pass, the number of attendees at the annual memorial in Oakland dwindles, but one mourner finally mustered the strength to attend this year. “I never came because I couldn’t come by myself,” said Rosalin D. Farris, who attended the service with a friend. Farris is an Oakland resident whose grandfather, Marshall Farris, died at Jonestown. She said her grandfather lived in San Francisco, but left his wife and family to relocate to Jonestown. Relatives tried repeatedly to disassociate him from the sect and later bring him home from Guyana, but were unsuccessful, she said. “My Dad tried to get in touch with him, to get him out of there, but got no response,” she said. They never saw him again.

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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