In 1998, I began attending the ceremony at 11 a.m. on November 18 at Evergreen Cemetery in Oakland, California, where hundreds of those who perished in Guyana are buried. That is my sacred place. I’m not a Christian and I don’t believe in an afterlife. However, I do feel in touch with my friends on that plot of ground – my friends who survived and those who died. When I die, I want my ashes scattered across the expanse of grass.
As the years have gone on, though, I found the peace at Evergreen more and more disturbed by the tone of the 11 a.m. religious service. Its many expressions of anger towards Jim Jones – at the expense of honoring those under our feet – don’t speak to me, just as I believe the traditional Christian service doesn’t speak to my friends who are buried there. After all, while they put the Christian ethic to work – they fed the hungry, clothed the naked, helped care for those afflicted, and tried to rid the world of hate – they had left traditional churches to become activists. In fact, they were “practicing” Christians, and they practiced that religion day and night.
Last year, a fellow survivor set up her own memorial on the site. She put the name of each person who died on a small nametag, and wrapped the flowing sash around several trees. It was a wonderful tribute to them, and its silence provided a welcome counterbalance. We don’t want to forget them. We cannot afford to forget them.
On that day, I determined what I needed for future anniversaries. After many conversations with other survivors and family members, we have come to a consensus about our day. We will begin holding a private, nondenominational gathering at 3 p.m. that same day. It will be the same time each year, on that rolling hillside. In that setting, we can gather and sit quietly or speak – whatever we are moved to do. It probably won’t be a place to lay blame or express hateful diatribes. It will be our time to reconnect and give thought.
That is how I will spend November 18 every year. I invite you to join us.
(Laura Johnston Kohl, who had lived in Jonestown but was working in Georgetown on 18 November, died on 19 November 2019 after a long battle with cancer. She was 72. Her writings for this website appear here.)