(Ed. note: One of the most prominent news stories in the last year about Peoples Temple and Jonestown was the coverage from Monroe, Louisiana on the efforts of Lela Howard to locate the grave of her aunt, Mary Pearl Willis, who died in Jonestown.)
My aunt, Mary Pearl Willis, has a headstone on her grave in Monroe, Louisiana. That wasn’t always the case. In fact, that wasn’t the case until a few months ago.
Last fall, as my family began its long journey to reclaim my aunt, my cousin – my auntie’s daughter – told me she wanted to have a headstone for her mother’s grave. I was shocked. She had to be mistaken. Of course, there was a headstone! How could there not be a headstone? But there wasn’t.
When I contacted the cemetery in Louisiana the next day to find out if any restrictions existed on placing a headstone for her grave, the first question I was asked was “if she was buried on the black or white side of the cemetery.” Never have I experienced more rage than that… until later in the week the cemetery workers told me that ”no grave is visible in the area where she is buried.” That galvanized me into action. Finding out who was in charge of the cemetery and its upkeep was number one on my list. I was disgusted to learn that the Sanitation Department was in charge. This made me feel like the remains were simply trash, not to be treated with any kind of respect. Yes, the obvious question of how and why family could allow this to happen was on my mind, but those thoughts couldn’t answer the question of why there were no official records of her burial and location in the cemetery.
After notifying the Board of Ethics, state representative and all local television and newspapers of this travesty, I contacted the mayor of Quachita Parish and governor of Louisiana. Somebody was going to listen and not brush me aside as if this matter was not important. When the mayor contacted me, I thought “Uh oh, I have caused some serious trouble!” But when Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco – who was still dealing with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina – called, that’s when it hit me, this is a serious matter!
Mayor James Mayo personally apologized for losing auntie’s grave and took full responsibility. He told me that locating auntie is his “number one priority,” and that he was personally going to lead the search for her remains. He said he would do whatever it takes to “rectify this matter the city has caused” and vowed that “changes are now underway to ensure this will never happen again… City officials have been counseled on how to handle delicate matters.”
On Tuesday, November 28th, I was contacted by a reporter for the local newspaper in Monroe who wanted to write a story about the cemetery and auntie’s missing grave. The reporter told me the mayor’s office and Public Works director was working to locate her and that so far, “they’ve narrowed it down to a 20 – 25 square foot area, where probes have been inserted into the ground to locate a casket. Nothing has been found yet, but they are steadfast in their search.” I had given them the exact location of her grave, but to have them looking was great! Later the reporter called to say that the library archives had located a picture of her grave and the articles pertaining to her death and funeral, which were sent to me.
The paper ran the story under the headline “Governor investigates the disappearance of Jonestown victim’s missing grave.” It was picked up by the Associated Press, and – of course – the internet. In addition to the mayor, I received calls from state representatives, other reporters and residents of the city who have been touched by her story. She was, is, and will continue to be a light of inspiration.
And then came the day when I learned they had located the grave. After flying with Chris to Louisiana and meeting with the mayor, we headed to the cemetery to unearth the grave to verify it was the casket provided by the State Department. That was a moment no one should have to experience. It hurt more than words can express, but standing there in this moment was me and my 16-year-old son. The casket had rusted somewhat throughout the years, but nothing could mistake its lead seal. Seeing auntie’s final resting place evoked a howling sound that brought me to the ground. This was it! She really died! My only image of her before that moment had been of that ugly yellow crate coming from the plane bringing her home, but now I could look down into the ground and see my beloved aunt laying in the ground in an unmarked grave. I tried my best to get in the grave and give her that final hug which has haunted me all these years, but the cemetery workers pulled me back, only allowing me to touch her casket. The only thing I could use to mark that spot once the grave was recovered was to place a broken, crumbling brick that lay nearby on top of it.
Could I have done otherwise? I don’t think I could have. Understanding auntie’s desire for equality in civil and human rights – a desire that took her into Peoples Temple – I had to follow through. And the efforts paid off. Officials in Louisiana who located her final resting place also uncovered illegal activities and various wrongdoings, including neglect, by cemetery workers and elected city officials. Institution of new laws and regulations are underway all because of Mary Pearl Willis.
How can I explain this arc of 29 years, from 1978 when I saw auntie for the last time, angry because she was leaving me; surviving over the years with a heavy burden of guilt with the firm belief that my refusal to hug her her caused her death; and now in 2007 standing in the mayor’s office as he says her name, asking me about her. It is simply unbelievable. There are no words to describe how good it feels.
But what comes close to expressing my feelings is kneeling on the ground with my son placing her headstone in the ground. I say now what I said then: “It is done.”