Why were so many of the people found face down or in rows?

Since there were no surviving witnesses to the death scene in the hours immediately following the carnage of Jonestown, any answer to this question is speculative. Nevertheless, this question does presuppose a follow-up: Did someone arrange the bodies into those positions, and if so, why?

One explanation is that Jim Jones stage-managed the arrangements of the bodies in death, just as he stage-managed so many Temple events in its life. And while Jones himself likely died as other adults were dying – and hence would not have arranged the bodies himself – the leaders of the Jonestown community who lived another several hours could have acted on his instructions to make the scene look peaceful. In addition, whether Jones had been alive or dead as this stage-management occurred is likely irrelevant: he would likely not have participated in moving the bodies himself.

There is no doubt in the mind of Tim Carter – who left Jonestown with his brother Michael and with Temple publicist Mike Prokes, only to return two days later to help with body identification – that the relatively small number of bodies “in front of the radio room were very neatly arranged almost to military alignment… They were completely incongruent with the rest of the tableau.” The reason for the positioning is unknown, though, as is the reason that the positioning stopped: “Maybe someone realized they couldn’t move 900 bodies,” Carter added.

It is therefore likely that, other than the positioning of the bodies around the radio room, there was no stage-management at all, that any seemingly-deliberate alignment of bodies can be considered a little more than the random circumstances of tragedy.

A review of all of the photos of the Jonestown dead reveals that there are bodies in all positions imaginable: people in stacks and people lying alone; people on their sides, their backs, and their fronts; people in rows of three or four (including the iconic photo of two adults with their arms draped around a child), people scattered, etc. In short, when 900 bodies are randomly collected around a central area, one could expect to see some of them lined up as if in rows. These occurrences don’t negate the randomness of the overall event.

There may be a logical explanation for a higher percentage of the bodies being face down. There were reports from survivors Odell Rhodes and Stanley Clayton that, as the deaths began – with the deaths of the children – their bodies were removed and placed gently on the ground, many of them face down. Was this done to remove the sight of dead children from their parents? Was it to create more room near the tables with the needle-less syringes and cups of poison and – later – the vat? The people who could answer those questions definitively are dead, and any speculation as to the reasons is just that: speculation.

Finally, as with other aspects of the Jonestown deaths, there are conspiracy theories that the bodies were arranged in the hours or days afterwards by outside, sinister forces. As with other such theories, evidence supporting these assertions has not emerged, and while they cannot be completely discounted, the simpler explanations are more logical and more likely.

Last modified on August 19th, 2014.
Skip to main content