Jonestown Massacre Mass Grave

February 8, 2010 — So I did the one thing you’re not supposed to do when visiting San Francisco, CA. I crossed the Bay Bridge into Oakland. That’s how much I wanted to see the mass grave of the Jonestown Massacre. So put your funeral face on...it's going to be one of those O.T.I.S. articles.

The Reverend Jim Jones performed quite the feat when he turned his completely forgettable name into an appellation of absolute infamy. All he had to do to pull the trick off was to become the most notorious cult leader in modern history, as well as Kool-Aid's worst celebrity endorser.

It all began in the 1950s in Indianapolis, IN, when Jones started a quasi-religious group called the Peoples Temple. His message of socialism, charity, racial equality, and faith healing became popular and the group expanded to locations throughout California, including a headquarters in San Francisco. Then, in the late 1970s, after a bit of unwanted media scrutiny that threatened to uncover abuses within the organization, Jones and close to a thousand of his followers left the U.S. for a 4,000-acre tract of jungle land in the South American country of Guyana.

Proclaimed Jonestown, this commune was considered by the Peoples Temple as a general Promised Land for whatever particular brand of gospel that Jones was preaching. The inhabitants of Jonestown lived together, worked together, raised children together, and, eventually, committed mass suicide together.

Since mass suicide is an extremely difficult phrase to gracefully segue from, I’m just going to plow ahead. Rumors of abuse had started to leak directly from Jonestown, prompting family members in California to approach their representative in congress, Leo Ryan, about the South American settlement. Ryan organized and led a group of journalists and family members down to Guyana to visit Jonestown.

The visit went more or less cordially, much of which can be seen in the video documentation by the journalists. It did, however, incite a few defections. Not many, but enough to agitate an abusive control freak long in the grips of drug-fueled paranoia. That’s Jones, by the way.

On November 18, 1978, as Ryan and his group began to board a plane on a nearby dirt runway to head for home, the group was ambushed. Ryan, three journalists, and one of the Jonestown defectors were shot to death. The rest were wounded or escaped into the jungle.

Meanwhile, Jones called a meeting at the commune’s open-air pavilion, where he informed his followers of the congressman’s death and exhorted them to consume cyanide-laced fruit drink to avoid retaliation by the U.S. Christ turned water into wine. Jones, a grape-flavored beverage into death. You can still listen to the chilling audio tapes or read the tape transcripts of the incident. “Revolutionary suicide” was the term he used in them.

The infants and children were killed first using syringes filled with the poisoned brew. Some adults were forced to commit suicide by Jones’ armed guards. Others partook on their own in acts of solidarity and obedience. In all, according to estimates and counting the airstrip victims, 914 people died during the massacre, close to 300 of which were children. Jones himself went out with a self-inflicted (it is thought) bullet to the head (it is known)...'cause I guess in his last moments he realized dying by way of children’s drink is kind of a silly way to go.

In a bit of the comic to make the horrible even more grotesque, the drink that the members of the Peoples Temple consumed has slipped into lore as being Kool-Aid. This, of course, has given rise to the colloquialism, “Don’t drink the Kool-Aid,” which is, I’m sure, nothing short of a nightmare for the product’s marketing staff. Actually, it was a nightmare for me as a kid, as well, since I thought it was a warning, with the consequence of not heeding being getting attacked by a giant red globular creature bursting through your wall.

Some claim that the drink was actually not Kool-Aid, but a cheaper knock-off called Flavor Aid, and they base this on a journalism report that notes packets of the latter trampled into the dust of the pavilion area. Of course, that is exactly the kind of disinformation I would immediately spread were I a member of the aforementioned Kool-Aid marketing staff. Oh yeah.

Actually, all this talk about Kool-Aid is just me putting off discussing the implications of the incident itself. The truth is, the Jonestown Massacre is a disturbing filter to look at humanity through and enough to make you start talking like King Lear on his worst days. After all, this wasn’t a small group of 20 people with wild beliefs who can easily be written off as aberrations. This was close to 1000 people...enough of a representative sample that it says unsettling things about every one of us as a human being. And they all just wanted a more fulfilling life.

Pics and footage of the aftermath can be found all over the Internet. Most of the bodies had fallen face-down where they died. They covered the ground in and around the open-air pavilion in a densely packed mass like some sort of colorful quilt. Is man no more than this, indeed.

Honestly, the whole thing doesn’t make sense...but there are is a lot of context that helps get a person closer to it. For example, unlike most cult leaders, Jones was wildly successful at hiding the more crackpot elements of his personality. In fact, during his time in California, Jones was a popular and influential presence on the political scene due to his charity focus and the size of his following. He was even appointed Chairman of the San Francisco Housing Authority Commission by the mayor of the city and interacted regularly with famous politicians in the national sphere. As to the suicide act itself, the Peoples Temple had practiced the procedure many times before with non-spiked punch, making me wonder how many thought it was just another drill. Of course, the best bit of explanation is that people naturally just want to be accepted as part of something larger than themselves, regardless of where it takes them.

Nah. Still doesn’t make sense.

And although I’m not sure what the moral of the story is, I do know where the memorial is.

Many of the Jonestown Massacre victims were from the Bay area, and more than 400 of them were buried in a mass grave in an Oakland cemetery. The exact number seems to be in dispute, though. In my research I came across a lot of 406s and 409s, but it at least seems established that more than 400 people molder together beneath the well-kept sod. As is usually the case with mass graves, the identities of many of those interred are unknown. According to accounts, though, many of them are children.

The mass grave is located in Evergreen Cemetery at 6450 Camden St. The grave itself is in the southeastern corner of the cemetery in the Garden of Remembrance plot behind the mausoleum. It’s a pleasant enough spot, relatively secluded amidst palms and other types of trees, and due to the cemetery being on a hill, it boasts an elevated view of the surrounding area outside the cemetery. I originally wrote “nice view,” but that might be taking it a tad too far. Naturally, the grave is in an area separate from other tombstones, since 400 bodies take up a lot of space.

Normally, it takes me a bit to find the exact spot of the oddity I’m searching for, and when I do, I usually throw finger guns in the air and dance around like Yosemite Sam. This time, of course, due to the somber nature of the oddity, I had to approach it in a more “Dr. Livingstone, I presume” manner. Also contributing to my sedate bearing was the fact that mass graves always make me feel vertiginous, as if the ground is softer where hundreds of people are buried.

The marker itself is a mere headstone, and, strangely, says nothing about the people buried beneath. It merely states: “In Memory of the Victims of the Jonestown Tragedy, Nov. 18, 1978, Jonestown, Guyana, Guyana Emergency Relief Committee.”

Another memorial for the Jonestown Massacre has been in the planning for years. There have also been rumors of Guyana turning the location of the Jonestown complex into a memorial/tourist attraction. But for now, you can at least go see a single headstone shared by more than 400 heads.