A Blessing Ceremony, To Restore the Dignity and Integrity of the Souls Who Perished at Jonestown

I am offering this proposal to the larger Peoples Temple community (i.e., including all who lost loved ones, even those never part of the church), in the hope that it will be welcomed. Any interchange about it is, of course, very welcome. And I suppose that, in a macabre way, this is especially timely. Between the Asian tsunami, Hurricane Katrina, and the deadly Pakistani earthquake, it does seem to have turned into The Year of the Survivors. It’s a good time to make peace with our own personal worlds, as the world at large seems an ever more troubled place.

My motivation stems from something that has disturbed me from the start: Not just upset about the deaths per se, but that we as a people (during the tragedy, after the tragedy, and also very much before the tragedy), were pawns of self-proclaimed leaders, of the media, and in some cases, of people who had never set foot in Peoples Temple at all. Let the person who thinks they were in control of what happened, be the first to raise their hand.

This is a complex matter that no one has addressed directly, but it was indeed, a silent partner in our psychological devastation – some of the “excess baggage” piled onto an already-devastating loss of life. The onslaught was such that we never had the liberty to be autonomous in our grief, much less our love for, and honor of, those who died. Everyone (on all sides) had their spins of the truth, and much of what happened along the way was not surfaced at all, much less acknowledged. On all sides.

I “book-ended” my own book, Snake Dance: Unravelling the Mysteries of Jonestown with God’s blessing upon the deceased at the opening, and of the deliverance of our people into the hands of the angels at the end as a humane, heartfelt uplift to close wounds that I realize for many, might never be closed.

Yet there have not been ready ways to achieve closure as a group – over either what happened or the psychological devastation left in its wake. Either for the living or in remembrance of the dead. I’m immensely grateful that I had the love and support in my own life to substantially heal from (as for so many) years of heartbreak, but the process is also ongoing.

For me, it has also taken a lot of research into events as they actually, tangibly (oftentimes in documented form) happened, because I have always believed that answers are our right, and I could not be complete without them. For me, emotional resolutions were never enough – even though, like most, I went through some gigantic ones – like screaming at Jim Jones to just crawl off alone into the jungle to die and leave everyone else alone – even years after it happened! There had to be some way to overcome the powerlessness of it all.

I am saddened to this day, that no one has ever investigated (i.e., via evidence) the professional-military-hit-team Congressional assassination (i.e., that we had no expertise whatsoever to do), plus much more. I have never believed that we could regain dignity when no one even believed that these were human beings in a whole vice of excruciating pressures from both within and without. It was all so “simple” – deranged leader, brainwashed followers. Who ever needed to question any further? (I surely have, but regrettably, have been met with roadblocks at every turn.)

But I have also come to realize that for many people, perhaps most, emotional resolutions, internal resolutions, psychological resolutions, are everything. That whatever discoveries, investigations, or answers are forthcoming, then or now, it will not, and never could, erase the sheer loss of life or its traumatic residues. And I not only relate to that — I fully share it. There is nothing more basic, human, compelling, than healing people’s pain.

So I offer a constructive, loving suggestion, which I hope many might shape, in the form of a “blessing ceremony.” For us, yes, but most especially for the dead — that their dignity, integrity, and the worth of their lives be affirmed, in a spirit that is sure, strengthening, and breaks/heals the all-too-many smears heaped upon them, to which they themselves could never speak. There has never been the collective will, much less the public opening, to do this, compounded by virtually all (for whatever reasons) having so many mixed emotions. But perhaps by now, such a cleansing and uplifting might be possible..

I realize from the start that we are a wide mix of people regarding spirituality. For some, or perhaps many, spirituality is something that was damaged, even shattered, through the tragedy. For me, spirituality was reaffirmed, partly because it had to matter in the face of death; and partly that I never depended on Peoples Temple or Jim Jones to give me spirituality, so neither Jim Jones, nor the tragedy, could take it away.

I cannot assume that it is that way for everyone. To the contrary. But surely, we can all relate to love. And conversely, relate to anxiety, incompletion, or lack of closure. We want not to be left with bitterness, or gaping holes of loss, or with the stupor of never making sense of what happened. As humans, especially as loving humans, we want to be more whole.

It is also corrosive for people to have to live with residues of blame, shame, guilt, fear, martyr, victim. This is just profoundly human. It’s spiritual as well because of the mysteries of life and death; but even for people who won’t “go there,” it is still profoundly and presently human.

The concept of “blessing,” of course, has a spiritual context, but it is inclusory, not exclusory. Wherever souls come from, why they are here, or where they go, everything is a part of our humanity, and without humanity, spirituality is naught as well. So moving together, however our spiritual orientations may differ, should be enhanced, not hindered.

What I feel is needed the most, whatever people’s spiritual orientation, is authenticity, sanity, and love. Even notwithstanding my own frustrations that no one, to this day, has much interest in humanizing, rather than demonizing, the deceased, much less in the heartbreaking complexities of their plight. But surely humanization is key for anyone who knew and loved the deceased.

I’ve pursued an aggressive exposé myself, partly because answers are our right, and partly borne of rage that people so good were tossed onto a trash heap of smears. But I too realize that emotional resolutions require more than an exposé of facts. I also realize that the emotional issues for survivors have had endless variations and, for each one, their own imperatives to resolve and bring people peace.

I just stumble that one key distinction has never been drawn: That of all the diatribes flung at Jim Jones personally, they were universally used to smear and dishonor everyone in Jonestown as well(!), and that they were the last people to deserve it. And that, in the process of media overkill, this diminished all of our lives – in memory, in honor, and the psychological costs for all.

I’ve observed from time to time, the behavior of other severely-traumatized people – the worse the trauma, the more daunting to heal and the less the power to speak. When parents from Pennsylvania lost tens of their teenagers in the TWA 800 crash, they were herded into a room in Baltimore for “answers.” Except not by the Federal Aviation Administration or the National Transportation Safety Board. No. It was the FBI presenting simulations from the CIA to convince those parents that 244 eyewitnesses didn’t see what they saw – namely that a missile was shot upwards to that plane, the plane burst into flames, then crashed downwards.

It was horrendous that this was done to traumatized parents who needed answers, yet no one ever questioned it. Maybe the disempowerment of unfathomable loss just paralyzed them from pressing to investigate what had really happened.

Then there was a special on “60 Minutes” many years back, about twins experimented on by the notorious Dr. Mengele in Nazi Germany. They were so traumatized, that they did not even speak to each other about it for 40 years!

These are both extreme examples, but more extreme than the survivors of Jonestown? No, hardly. There is obviously still much pain, along with a dearth of questions beyond what the public at large was told.

In a way, it’s been worse even, because public sympathy has never been on our side; moreover, the usual death rituals of honor, funerals, and memorials filled with love for the deceased, rather than diatribes and disclaimers….. well, they never happened. Most could not even escape the indignity of mass graves. Which were not even just covered with earth, but by the media crapping all over their lives, their memories, and, if possible (though I do not believe that is possible) their very souls.

I don’t know about others, but the gaping lack of love and honor for the fallen, wounded me deeply. But no one has ever appeared to rectify it – even us!!

I have always felt (as may others) that we were robbed of more than lives on November 11, 1978. We were robbed of our dignity, our memory, our honor. And the people who died were robbed of honor, dignity, and any voice by which to counter the media onslaught which, in its very brutality, diminished their deaths. The event was “everything,” but the people were “nothing” – cultists, duped, coerced, no purpose, no meaning to their lives, pitiful, freaks, psychotic, etc., etc.

I have always felt that was/is so wrong. To do to anyone, but most especially to people who were, by and large, so loving, so constructive, who had overcome so much in life, and including so many humanitarians and altruists. These were, by and large, very good people. Whatever happened at Jonestown, they had made their exodus willingly and rejoiced in their accomplishments (which were considerable, but blotted out), but the whole purpose was to smear Jonestown and at the least, to force the community to disband. To portray people who were allegedly nothing but duped, and cultists, and coerced into living a bleak life, and who would have been so very grateful, one and all, to be “rescued.”

If you, any of you, still choose to believe that, I suppose that you will. And I realize that your pain and your loss hurts as much as anyone else’s. I just wonder if anyone has considered what summing this all up with “just blame Jim Jones” has done to the hearts, the souls, the courage, and the dignity of those left amongst us who did want to give them honor, and the sovereignty of their own souls in death, even if (you believe) not in life. Not because they wanted to die or didn’t, or believed that they should or shouldn’t have done this to themselves or their children, or followed Jim Jones or hated Jim Jones, went kicking and screaming, or were simply terrified.

No. Just because of who they were and we loved them. And to transcend the reality that no one else did. The world gave them no love, no honor, and denied all rituals of closure. But we can rise above that. The world forever linked them with Jim Jones and the tragedy, but we can un-link them into the freedom of their own souls within our hearts, our memories, and in our declarations. We have the power to do that collectively. We just never have.

I’m not an organizer and live at a distance from California. I realize I may be spearheading something I may not even be able to participate in. I don’t even know if this can result in a formal step, like a real face-to-face ceremony, or can be accomplished through writings, smaller gatherings, or even internal transformations. I just feel that the more individuals are made whole, and released from the bondages of residual trauma, then the more possible it will be for everyone. To set a new tone.

People can contribute whatever input they like. Me, I’ve drafted a preliminary list of affirmations that might give a voice to whomever needs to speak and has never had that chance, or collective support in doing so:

  • That we love all who died at Jonestown – all of you. That those we cannot bring ourselves to love, we extend a release from the chains of hatred and blame. That for those who cannot do that for the objects of their hatred and blame, to do it as a release within their own hearts and for the dignity and well-being of their own lives. And for those who cannot do it at all, to lend our love and support that that burden will, if not now, some day be released from them.
  • That this love and outreach in spirit include everyone – the people who died at Jonestown, the people who died at Port Kaituma, the people outside the community who took their own lives, then or later on, or those of their children, however misguided, or simply borne of guilt or despair, their motives or state of mind may have been.
  • That along with the “greater death” of physical deaths, came all the “little deaths” of blame, shame, guilt, victim, martyr; and that we affirm our right, as whole human beings, to transcend these; and to restore the dignity of both those who died, and those who survived.
  • That it isn’t enough to love some one person who died, and hate all the people who died around them. That however little we understand of how and why fate placed all their souls there at that tragic moment in time, they were there together.
  • That the only way to release them within ourselves is to release all of them.
  • That we honor you – who you were, what you lived for, worked for, hoped for, even in the face of failings, mistakes, misjudgments, and their horrendous cost.
  • That your bodies died but your souls and spirits survive in our hearts.
  • That your lives, your training, your intents, were not to harm, but to heal a troubled world.
  • That you built a beautiful community, with love, care, and pride, that was demolished not only physically, but in spirit and through relentless smears, rather than honored, however that happened.
  • That we honor the best in you and forgive the worst. That we release blame from you, and wherever there remains doubt, give you the benefit of those doubts, and release the rest through love and grace.
  • That even, for whatever reasons, you lacked the power to alter your fates, we accept that you did the very best you could in the face of unendurable terror and stress.
  • That by the end, almost no one had the energy, strength, or clarity to “choose.” That Jonestown would have been, at the very least, forcibly disbanded, and that those who would acquiesce to that and those who wouldn’t, never had peace through which to mediate their course, much less alter it at the end.
  • That we understand how many times this had been discussed, and forgive any and all lapses of consciousness, power of speech, obligation to question, courage to stand alone, or failure to comprehend the gravity of what might happen, in the year and a half prior to the tragedy.
  • That we accept that so many in Jonestown had a huge stake in staying there and continuing to build; and that we forgive how those hopes, dreams and accomplishments were used for any purpose whatsoever, by any side, than to realize those hopes and dreams, and to further love and reconciliation rather than hatred or vengeance on ANY side.
  • That even as everything within us was pushed passed any humane limits over what happened, it must have been all the worse for them. So we fully forgive.
  • That we do not, and never would, sanction the death of children under any rationale whatsoever. We see the horrendous, grievous costs of “pre-emptive” deaths even today, as we as Americans, now witness the de-briefing of a pre-emptive war for which they was no basis to pre-empt! No one at Jonestown knew what would happen had that community just stood still at the last and awaited its fate. And life, especially the lives of the young, is too precious to have ever even considered such a grievous course.
  • That if lives were to be lost, it should not have been at our own hands.
  • That no one owns anyone else’s life. Nor does anyone own anyone’s else soul. That those lives, those souls, have the inherent right, in death as well as in life, to be free.
  • That if we were to relinquish our love for anyone at Jonestown to the will, power, or dictates of Jim Jones, that we also bind that soul as powerless, and diminish, not honor, the power of our own love for them.
  • That we cannot second-guess the will, or lack thereof, of each individual person who died. It is clear that there were many states of consciousness at play. So let us honor people as they were – even the wrong-headed or fanatical ones, the panicked ones, the ones disempowered by excessive age or youth, the people who never spoke up, the people who spoke up too loudly, and the ones who were simply caught in the cross fires of fate. If they could have handled that grave crisis any better than they did, they would have. That if anyone could have defused that final result (i.e., energy, strength, backing, being-on-site – whatever!), they would have.
  • That there were ever so many people in Jonestown who would have done anything, even died, to not be dragged back to the United States. That we, as humane and loving human beings, of course know that death by self-defense, death by passive resistance, death in battle, death by suicide….. that these are worlds apart; also that the manner of one’s death is the last thing anyone remembers about the dignity of life.
  • That we acknowledge that the tragedy implemented the most grievous course – death at our own hands, and death of all. That we cannot affirm that, but that even in the face of it, we affirm that your lives were precious, well-spent, and that nothing, no one, anywhere, had the right to rob you of the value of your lives by decrying the manner of your deaths.
  • That the world failed to ever relate to any will on the part of the people of Jonestown, even if not all, to stay at whatever cost, even the loss of life. That the world saw no reason why these people, so many of them brave, valiant, kind, and with greater vision than many left in their wake, came to Jonestown at all, or what their far-away journey meant for their hopes, their dreams, and for many, their desperation to escape life State-side, as well as their real, unsung accomplishments.
  • That for all these many reasons and more, the world never honored our fallen friends; but that we have the right to give that honor, and for it to be a healing power in our lives.
  • That we especially express an outpouring of love for the children who died, for those bonds of love never die, and their memory and their souls are forever precious to us. And that we especially express an outpouring of love for those who suffered the most grievous personal losses. We all lost, but some lost all. I would never presume to put myself in the place of many of those. I can only give heartfelt acknowledgment that their loss was greater than mine.
  • That we cannot know what our loved ones would say were they here today, or what forms of reconciliation, revision, or regret, they might express. But if we leave that open, then we are open, as well, to reconciliations that we may need, and to know that deep bonds of love can never be broken, and that love (being who we are) transcends even what we do.
  • That we envision that our loved ones have regained any strength or power within their own souls, that either the process of living, or the trauma of death, diminished within them; and that they in memory, as well as we in the world, have every right, and the power, to emerge emotionally and spiritually whole.
  • That whomever amongst us cannot forgive (forgive Jim Jones personally, or anyone else), it’s all right. That no one has the right to force that to change; and that we acknowledge fully that some have had to endure psychological burdens that were worse for them than for others.
  • That no one speaks for everyone, and that no one ever spoke for everyone on any side. That we allow the opening, and the honor, for the dead, wherever they are, to rest in their own peace, not one superimposed by the living.
  • That letting people rest in peace means accepting who they were – the totality of their lives. That we acknowledge the tragedy of their plight and ours, and the horrendous loss, as something that did happen in a very real, sometimes-cruel world. That we may never know the larger “whys” of it, but that we do care enough to love good people who died so tragically and with such a dearth of public support.
  • That we affirm our own right to do this, and to stand on sure ground within ourselves, rather than to let that be (or have been) determined by the will, power or authority of any other – be it person, press, or public climate.
  • That for those who feel any need to forgive themselves, for whatever reasons, we honor that burden, but also offer our love and support that it be lifted from them.
  • That any who may feel that free speech never had a chance in opening all facets of the tragedy to public view, much less investigation, be given the leave and respect to be who they are and do what they have done, from those to whom it always mattered the most.
  • That we listen to one another, and let people speak from their hearts, both about the whole of the event and in personal remembrances.
  • That we, in our humanity and love for the fallen, invoke whatever benevolent powers there may be in the universe, to bless these souls forever.

Lastly, I have a few suggestions as to the spirit in which such an effort may flourish:

That people participate in an atmosphere of humility, deference, acknowledgment of our losses, and recognition of that which unites us, rather than that which divides us.

That we set aside whatever differences we may have with each other for a day (with the hope that we may continue to do so in the days afterwards) and that participation is free of agendas, or intentions beyond the purpose of blessing, healing, and uplifting both the living and the dead.

That in our recognition of our collective loss, we respect each other’s loss. Someone standing right never to you may have loved a person whom you spurned, but the dead are not here to defend themselves; there are hundreds of precious souls who may not be singled out at all, but who merit our love collectively; and especially, if there are any souls still needing to be released, it is kind words, acceptance and love that will reach them, not bitterness, rejection, or hate.

I offer this to all Jonestown survivors with an open heart. I’ve tried to be as inclusive as I can, but whatever I may have missed (and surely I have), please feel free to fill in. The backdrop is ever so complex, so any one person might never get it right. My main concern is keeping the spirit of this clean and clear.

All feedback is welcome. Much thanks to all.

(Laurie Efrein Kahalas, a long-time Temple member and author of Snake Dance, created the website www.jonestown.com which now appears on this site here. Her previous articles for the jonestown report are here. She can be reached through dan_laurie44@comcast.net.)