Peoples Temple was a movement that should be remembered for the ideals of social justice that it sought to achieve, long before social justice became popular.
The personality of Jonestown was certainly evident at the dedication service that took place on May 29, 2011 at Evergreen Cemetery in Oakland, California. The placement of four plaques listing 918 names on the grave of the 400 people buried there was a symbol of the dedicated work of the members of the Jonestown Commune. The memorial ceremony was a tribute to the lives of those who lived at Jonestown, and to the children, many of them buried at Evergreen, by an idealistic group of social activists who wanted to give the children a good life free from the inequalities of their circumstance. Most of us are familiar with the mistakes made by Temple leadership, but we should not forget the hard work and the dreams of the members of Peoples Temple and the good they sought to achieve.
It was a perfect day, a day that could only happen in California, and a day that should have happened 30 years ago. The sky was azure blue, the temperature warm and comfortable, and the sun bright. The leaves of the trees of Evergreen cemetery – palms and eucalyptus, along with the Evergreen – rustled quietly amidst the hills and clean neatly trimmed graves which overlook the quiet working class neighborhoods of Oakland, California.
The Jonestown gravesite is a quiet reflective location in the back of the cemetery near a grove of pine trees providing shade on the hill overlooking the grave itself. The grave area was beautifully designed by the cemetery, a black iron fence atop a brick semicircular wall encircling the rear side of the grave, with the front of the grave on the level area of a small hill. It is a quiet place – private, calm, reflective – in a beautiful section of the cemetery.
The four memorial plaques were positioned over the graves inside the semicircle that embraces the mass grave site. Tents were set in front of the memorial site to offer shade to the guests who sat in the rows of chairs. The spillover from the crowd stood to the side or the rear of the tents, or sat on the grassy hillside during the ceremony. Speakers were seated along the semicircular black iron fence at the rear of the memorial gravesite. A microphone was centered just behind the plaques. The guests were quiet, comfortable, and well-dressed.
As the speakers recounted the lives of those being celebrated, the audience responded with subdued emotion. The speakers recounted their memories and the good works of those who dedicated their lives at Jonestown. They spoke of their search for social equity, equality, fairness, and peace. They spoke of the good works done by the people of Jonestown, of the ideals and social equality they sought. In the end their dreams came apart, but not their ideals.
The memorial placed on their graves is a symbol of respect, of the love they shared, the dream they lived, the work they achieved, and the example they set for those who continue that work. What was in the hearts of those who lived at Jonestown was more important than how the movement ended. Their work was in their hearts, and it is the heart that is our judge in the world to come. The Jonestown Memorial assures that the hopes and ideals of those who lived at Jonestown will not be forgotten.
(Edward Cromarty is a regular contributor to the jonestown report. His other article in this edition is Impact of One-Way Communication on Peoples Temple. His previous writing are collected here. He may be reached at email@example.com.)