The dedication ceremony at Evergreen Cemetery was a beautiful, special, cathartic, healing, and learning experience. It was also long overdue. I went to Oakland hoping for many of these reactions, but I could not have anticipated their power or effect upon me.
The full impact of what was transpiring crystallized in my mind earlier that day when I purchased some single red roses to lay on the plaques. I realized that I was – for the first time – having a formal service to bury my son Malcolm, my sister Terry, my niece, nephew, and brother-in-law. (Gloria and Jocelyn were interred in other locations.)
As I approached the cemetery gates, I experienced some fear, stress, and indignation. Fear of protests and ugly confrontation. Stress because of the unknowns: Would there be people disrespecting the service? Would it be a media zoo? Would there be voyeurs waiting to catch a glimpse of our tears? Indignation at the recollection of the memory of how this particular site came to be: the only cemetery in the entire country that would take the bodies.
Few people remember anymore that, from late November 1978 to early May 1979 – more than five long months – hundreds of coffins containing the bodies of our loved ones were stacked at Dover Air Force Base, waiting for a final resting place. The citizens of Dover wanted them gone – as long as the bodies were there, they’d certainly attract crazy cultists, hit squads, weird rituals, even disease – but nobody wanted the bodies to be buried in their back yard. It was Evergreen – and Evergreen alone – which opened its heart and its gates. The memory of those months still makes my blood boil and my heart ache.
Like all things Peoples Temple – it seems to me, anyway – this Memorial Day ceremony was filled with conflicting emotions and feelings.
I was thrilled it turned out my fears were unfounded: It was clear from the police officers at the gate, along with Ron Haulman, the Executive Director of Evergreen Cemetery, that we were going to be provided a safe environment, where the poignancy and gravitas of the day would be respected.
The day was filled with the light of healing energy.
At my first glimpse of the memorial site itself, I was stunned at the beautiful job that had been done. The stone and wrought iron fence surrounding the plaques, the elevated landscape, and the plaques themselves were truly beyond anything I expected. The ceremony hadn’t even started, and my eyes were already moist.
The service itself struck the perfect tone for me. The opening music – an original composition by bluesman O’Malley Jones, whose daughter was among those buried at our feet – was perfect. The speakers – Jim Cobb, Nell Smart, Leslie Wagner, Rebecca Moore – were eloquent. Their words echoed the love they have for their lost family members, the painful wounds those losses still inflict, and appreciation for the beautiful and fitting memorial site.
As Nell Smart spoke, I was taken back to the first time I visited Evergreen cemetery twenty five years after Jonestown. Many of us had come to the realization that the existing memorial services represented neither them nor Peoples Temple. Even the site was not “ours,” as had been made abundantly clear by the treatment of survivors attending these formal services. Most of us simply stopped going. We had all experienced enough pain in our lives without having to endure one more indignation.
On that day, then – November 18, 2003 – we invited a small gathering of PT survivors for a second service. There were perhaps thirty of us there. Nell had brought some ashes of her children, and spread them over the ground. It was incredibly poignant and powerful. In retrospect, it also represented the first real step towards reclaiming the site as our own. That injustice has been forever rectified with the memorial Nell was now helping to dedicate.
Several people took advantage of the open mike portion of the service. I am proud to have been among my brothers and sisters – Liz Schwartz and Guy Young, Claire Janaro and Teri Buford, Dawn Gardfrey and Garry Lambrev, Jordan Vilchez and Vicki Moore – in speaking. The words and emotions reflected those of the scheduled speakers. Love. Loss. Appreciation. Heartache.
It seemed to me that, for the first time in the more than 32 years since Jonestown, a memorial service finally reflected the “people” of Peoples Temple. There were no vitriolic attacks filled with hatred and the poison of bitterness. I don’t believe the name Jim Jones was uttered more than once in those two hours. This was about the people.
I met many new people who had experienced immediate family loss, but who were not PT members. Each of these meetings was profoundly moving, and affected me deeply.
The pain in the heart of Barbara Sines, the mother of Nancy and Ron Sines, was etched clearly on her face, as well as the appreciation for the day itself. She was so thrilled to meet people who knew her precious children.
I met Brian Bouquet’s mom, a kind and sweet woman, and we talked of her son. I also discovered she had known my mom, who died 47 years ago. It was emotional and healing for both of us, and we are still in touch.
I met two children of PT members who had died in Jonestown, neither of whom had known their parents. For one in particular, the service and meeting the former members changed his life and – more importantly – his opinion of his father. Those are his words, not my interpretation.
Perhaps the most powerful story I heard – one which truly reflects the energy around the new memorial – came from Ron Haulman. After the service, I thanked him for the beautiful job that he and Evergreen owner Buck Kamphausen had done. I told him that I thought a place of healing had been created, and I expressed my hope that this place might in some small way be like “The Wall” in Washington D.C.: a place of reflection and healing
“It already has,” Ron replied. He told me of a funeral service that had been held three days earlier for a soldier that had been killed overseas. There was a full color guard, as well as the gathered family and friends. After the internment service, the mother of the soldier noticed the memorial as they were leaving. She asked Ron what it was. He told her: A memorial for those who died in Guyana. She went over to the site and prayed, Ron said, as did every other person who attended that service, including the color guard. Ron’s eyes were moist as he related this story. So were mine, as they still are now as I write this. Total strangers stopped to say prayers, meditate, pay respects, reflect, and remember.
A far cry from Dover, indeed.