On Thursday, November 23, 1978 – five days after the deaths in Jonestown – the first bodies arrived via U.S. military transport at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware for processing, identification, and notification of next-of-kin. Documentation of the decision to transport the bodies to the East Coast – if in fact there is documentation, rather than the decisions being made in telephone calls among White House, State Department and Pentagon officials – has yet to be discovered.
However the decisions were made, they were controversial and had far-reaching implications. The aircraft may have flown in and out of a U.S. military airbase, but once within Delaware’s borders, the bodies were subject to state laws regarding autopsies, jurisdiction and authority of state-licensed mortuaries, disposition of the bodies (interment, cremation, burial at sea), transport of the bodies within the state, etc. There were also political considerations: would the people of Delaware welcome or even tolerate the burial of “cultists” within the state; would a mass burial site – in the words of the first document below – become “a cult memorial which would become the site of a mecca of all sorts of curiosity seekers”?
The following two records discuss several of these issues. The first is an undated State Department memo – the latest cited date is December 9 – summarizing previous meetings with Delaware state officials and addressing outstanding issues. The second, also undated – although it refers to a telephone conversation on January 22, 1979, and was written in preparation for a legislative hearing on January 25 – originates from Dover AFB and reports on how the military is handling those same issues.
The decisions to transport the bodies to Dover instead of California were controversial for family members as well. As Rebecca Moore, the sister of two of the Jonestown dead and the aunt of another, wrote in her article, Last Rights (1988):
We were puzzled that the Air Force didn’t take the victims to Oakland Army Base in California, site of a large military mortuary which had processed bodies during the Vietnam War. Most of the victims’ families lived in California, where Peoples Temple was headquartered. It would have been easy to request, and obtain, medical records, especially from San Francisco. Finally, the bodies would not have had to be shipped across country for burial, an impossible expense for many relatives. Moving the bodies from one distant place to another – Guyana to Delaware – continued to alienate relatives from their dead.
Newspapers and officials gave two reasons for taking the bodies to Dover. First, it was closer to Guyana. Transporting them to Oakland, or to Travis Air Force Base fifty miles north, would have required the planes to stop en route for refueling. Second, the Dover mortuary was supposed to be better equipped to handle a large number of dead people. A few years earlier it had processed 327 bodies of Americans killed in an air crash at Tenerife, Canary Islands.…
The government’s stated reasons for choosing Delaware are totally fabricated, since most of the people working on the Jonestown bodies did not normally work at the Dover mortuary. The volunteers and specialists could have worked anywhere.
We believe the bodies went to Dover simply because they would be close to government bureaucrats in Washington, D.C. who might have to travel there. We also believe the Air Force flew the victims to Delaware rather than California because the government didn’t want to be hassled by relatives. NBC Nightly News reported that Dover was selected because of its “distance from California, thus reducing chances of families crowding the scene.”
As far as we were concerned, dumping the bodies at Dover — 3000 miles from the Temple’s headquarters — demonstrated extreme callousness on the part of the U.S. government. Coupled with the State Department’s desire to bury everyone in Guyana, we felt the government forgot that the bodies had once been people, with kin who still loved them.
People in San Francisco and California were more sympathetic than the people of Delaware. The Temple was a California institution. Unlike Delaware, the San Francisco bay area has a large black population. If the move to Dover was calculated to dilute sympathy for the victims, it worked.
[Editor’s note: The documents above were uncovered by independent researcher Brian Csuk, who received them in response to his request for agency records under the Freedom of Information Act.]