By Joe Rogers, December 11, 2002 11:19 AM
24 Years After People's Temple Horror
Victims Still Nameless in Oakland Grave
OAKLAND -- The small gray tombstone over the hill on the far side of the Evergreen Cemetery near Mills College in Oakland looks just like the hundreds of other stones crowded into the lot.
But underneath this granite marker, almost half of the victims of cult leader Jim Jones rest anonymously, 409 former members of the People's Temple buried together in a single grave that lists no names.
"Nobody even wanted to put up a stone," said Rev. Jynona Norwood, a Los Angeles pastor who lost 27 relatives in the 1978 Jonestown Massacre.
The existing stone, which was purchased by funds from the Jones estate, reads simply, "In Memory of the Victims of the Jonestown Tragedy."
Norwood has campaigned with limited success since 1980 to build a Jonestown Memorial at Evergreen which would list the names of those killed in Jonestown. Her Guyana Tribute Foundation accepts donations to build a wall similar in design to the Viet Nam memorial in Washington, DC.
But the lingering stigma attached to Jones and his People's Temple has made memorializing the victims difficult since the outset, when cemeteries refused to accept the bodies for burial.
"The Bay Area is still in such great pain," said Norwood, just hours after completing a fundraising walk-a-thon for the memorial. "Anytime you say `Jonestown' you are just going to hear gasps."
On November 18, 1978 Jones, a religious fanatic with a charismatic personality, ordered the faithful -- who had followed him from the Bay Area to live at a church complex in a town named after him, Jonestown, in Guyana -- to commit suicide by drinking cups of Kool-Aid laced with cyanide. Those who refused were murdered in the compound they had helped to build in South America.
Nine days later, nearly 200 soldiers of the 193rd Army Infantry Brigade had identified Jones and his 912 victims, and flew their remains back to the United States, where they remained at Dover Airforce Base in Deleware until the government could figure out what to do with them.
Because of the effect of the tropical climate on the remains, 409 could not be positively identified individually, although their names were deduced from membership records. Each one hailed from the Bay Area.
Donetter Lane of the San Francisco Council of Churches worked for six months with the State Department to bring the bodies home to the Bay Area, but could not find a cemetery to bury them properly.
Residents in Marin and San Mateo counties both complained loudly when nearby cemeteries offered to take the bodies. In particular, Marin residents did not want a grisly spiritual tourist attraction in their neighborhood.
Finally on May 11, 1979, Evergreen Cemetery in Oakland buried the unidentified victims, most of whom were African-American.
Despite its gospel of racial equality, the People's Temple drew its membership primarily from San Francisco's black community.
"Evergreen recognized that one of the reasons was because of the race," said Fielding McGehee, who edits the online Jonestown Report which compiles documents and reports about the tragedy. "Evergreen said, `these are our people.' They came from this area."
"We didn't have to know them by name," said Pastor Eugene Lumpkin of the Ebenezer Baptist Church. "We had fellowship with the churches that the people came from originally."
History has shown that Marin County's fears may have been somewhat misplaced. The public does not come to visit the Jonestown grave in large numbers.
"People don't even know it's here," said Evergreen Groundskeeper Giovanni Morga. Victims' family members and other survivors visit only very occassionally.
Evergreen director Lori Hann said the grave only gets "one or two visitors every couple of months."
"They go when they know the press won't be there," said Deborah Layton, a Jonestown survivor who wrote a book about her experiences as a member of the People's Temple. "They'll come when they know no one will watch them."
Every November 18, a white canopy goes over the stone. Folding chairs are put out for a memorial service, led by Norwood. Groundskeeper Morga estimates 70 to 80 people attend each year.
Even though Layton has been very public about her Jonestown experiences, she has never been able to stomach attending the memorial service, prefering instead to spend time at the grave after the politicians and reporters have disappeared.
"Next year," Layton affirmed, "I'll go to the twenty-fifth anniversary."
The People's Temple survivors have not remained a tight-knit group in the 24 years since the tragedy. Many have changed their names and keep their connection to Jones a secret.
"You are so ashamed of having joined or having been duped," said Layton, who went public so that her teen-age daughter would not fall in with an insular relgious group as she had at age 17, when her brother introduced her to the People's Temple.
Survivors also struggle with the lingering public perception that the Jonestown victims were mindless followers not smart enough to recognize when Jones manipulated them.
"Many of them wre good, sincere, hard-working, dedicated people who believed in what they were doing," said U.C. Davis Sociologist John Hall. Hall interviewed survivors and reviewed documents for the first scholarly study of Jonestown.
Rev. Norwood hopes a Jonestown memorial will provide an opportunity for survivors and their family members to come to terms with the fact of Jonestown
"We want that wall first so that families of victims can grieve," Norwood said firmly. "At least if we have the wall, we have something."
Ironically, as support for the wall has steadily grown over the years, so have the complications and the price tag, up from $30,000 in 1980 to $100,000 today.
"A great deal of politicians got involved," said Pastor Lumpkin, who also serves on the board of the Guyana Tribute Foundation. With them came differing ideas about the wall's design, such as an eternal light to shine on the wall.
San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown has even thrown in his support for a second memorial wall, on the other side of the Bay.
Now two walls, which will bear a dedication by Maya Angelou, have been streamlined to a simpler listing of the names of all who died at Jonestown, except Jim Jones.
Norwood has been emphatic about keeping his name off the wall, although the enmity between those loyal to Jones and those who loathed him have softened considerably over the years.
"Both sides worked together to pardon Larry Layton," said McGehee. Deborah's brother Larry is now serving a life sentence for shooting Congressman Leo Ryan, whose visit to Jonestown preciptated the meltdown.
In another step of reconciliation, Jones's two sons Jim, jr. and Stephan began attending the annual memorial services in 1998.
How to incorporate Jones's name into the memorial remains a divisive and complex issue for the survivors.
"It'd be nice not to have his name on the wall," said Layton, "but the fact is he died there too. How do you set aside the name of the perpetrator, or do you even put the perpetrator there?"
The more open-ended the memorial, the more effective a tool it is for grieving, according to Hall.
"Perhaps the best memorial is one that allows people to make their own meanings," said Hall. "That is the lesson of the Viet Nam War Memorial."