The bodies recovered in Jonestown following the tragedy of November 18, 1978 were transported to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware for identification, embalming, and notification of next of kin.
Relatives of the Jonestown dead contacted the State Department with medical and dental records to assist in the identification effort. Many of these families also made arrangements with the federal government to have the remains of the identified dead shipped home for burial. While “home” for some of the bodies was as close as New York, Indiana or Louisiana, the last place of residence for Temple members – prior to emigrating to Guyana – was in California, 3000 miles from the facility where the bodies were initially processed. California was also where the plurality of families lived as well.
Only about half of the bodies were buried by their relatives. Many of the remaining bodies were identified, but the families didn’t claim them. Some of these relatives were ashamed of who the family member was, the “crazed cult leader” whom he/she had followed, or how he/she had died. Many others just couldn’t afford the expense of cross-country transport, especially when the list of identified bodies included several relatives.
The bigger problem was with the unidentified bodies, most of whom were children. With some arriving in Guyana without a passport, with few medical records extant either in Jonestown or in the States, with the parents often among the Jonestown dead as well, and with decomposition only adding to the challenge, more than 200 children were never formally identified.
The issue arose of what to do with the unidentified and unclaimed bodies. Local cemeteries on the East Coast wanted nothing to do with the remains, and no government agency took the lead in deciding what should be done. (A longer discussion of the handling of the bodies from Jonestown appears here.)
Into the breach stepped the Guyana Emergency Relief Committee (ERC), an ecumenical group with temporary offices in the San Francisco Council of Churches. On January 26, 1979, Superior Court Judge Ira Brown authorized the ERC to take custody of the bodies and to arrange for their burial.
On February 16, 1979 – two months after the deaths – the group asked the court to appropriate money from the estate of Peoples Temple so that it could accomplish that task. The ERC Plan does not include the arrangements with Evergreen – the ad hoc committee was still in negotiations with a cemetery in San Mateo at the time of this filing – but it describes the issues of transportation, interment and finances with which it would wrestle over the following months.
The same day that the ERC filed its plan with the court, Father John O’Connor – one of the three religious leaders who had formed the ad hoc group – wrote a more detailed report to his colleagues, describing his findings in greater detail.
A hearing on the proposal took place a week later, and on April 4, 1979, Judge Brown approved the plan and ordered release of funds from the Temple estate to complete the task.
Even at that late date, the ERC still did not have a final resting place secured. That would come in the next six weeks, when Evergreen Cemetery in Oakland, California agreed to accept the largest mass of the Jonestown dead. The largest contingent of Jonestown bodies – some 408 men women and (mostly) children – was finally interred in May 1979, six months after the tragedy.
O’Connor Report to Emergency Relief Committee
Documents 1, 2 and 4 above are courtesy of the California Historical Society. They may be found in Box 113 of MS 3800. Item 3 comes from independent researcher Brian Csuk, who received this document from the State Department in response to his request under the Freedom of Information Act. His website on primary government sources related to Peoples Temple went offline in 1998.