Reports of the Deaths of American Citizens Abroad

When an American dies overseas, it is the responsibility of the U.S. State Department – most oftentimes acting through the U.S. Embassy in the country in which the death occurred – to work with the host government in repatriating the remains. The fact that more than 900 Americans (there were about a half dozen Guyanese nationals) died on a single day under unknown circumstances did not relieve the American Embassy in Georgetown of its responsibility. It just made the task more complicated.

The bodies of the Americans who died in Jonestown on November 18, 1978 were transferred by the end of the month to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware by military transport. There were no autopsies in Guyana to determine cause of death, and all were removed Guyana from without death certificates. More than half of the remains transported to Dover were identified by the end of December 1978, but many were never identified and were buried together at Evergreen Cemetery in Oakland, California in May 1979.

The American Embassy in Georgetown released its Reports of the Death of an American Citizen Abroad in early April 1979, about four-and-a-half months after the deaths in Jonestown. Three of them were for the identified bodies of:

    Mary Pearl Willis, who was buried in Monroe, Louisiana, the state of her birth, in January 1979 (Report courtesy of Lela Howard, the niece of Mary Pearl Willis).

    Daniel James Beck, who was cremated and whose ashes were scattered at sea (Report courtesy of Don Beck, Danny’s father).

    John Lawrence Gardener, the disposition of whose remains are unknown (Report courtesy of Don Beck, John’s guardian).

The information contained on the single-page document was almost identical on these reports. The cause of death of each was certified as “Acute cyanide poisoning,” as determined by a Coroner’s Inquest. The disposition of the remains was “Returned to the United States,” and the disposition of personal effects was “Undeterminable at this time.” The dates and the information contained on the single-page documents were typical of most such reports.

An article on the government’s handling of the bodies appears here.

Last modified on October 22nd, 2013.
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