On November 18, 1978, 914 members of Peoples Temple died in Guyana. In this article, there will be no debate regarding whether it was a mass suicide or a mass murder. Instead, this article will look at the stigma associated with suicide throughout the ages, and how the event reported by the media as a “mass suicide” affected the way that many people viewed – and still view – the dead at Jonestown.
The dictionary defines stigma” as “a mark or token of infamy, disgrace, or reproach.” It is a societal phenomenon: there are stigmas surrounding criminal, immoral and unethical behavior, and they are all based on the social norms and mores of our society. Suicide, which is defined as “the act of intentionally killing oneself,” is perhaps one of the strongest stigmas that exist. In our culture, suicide is not discussed, and even when one attempts to discuss it, only in the hopes that it can be prevented from occurring, people bristle. I worked in an Adolescent Suicidology Lab while I was at university as an undergraduate, and although it was our intention only to better understand what was causing teens emotional distress, and indeed to help those who were already contemplating suicide before we even met them, I would often receive strange looks from those whom I told about my work. Even today it continues: no one wants to discuss suicide, neither the reasons for it nor the ways of preventing it. The topic is nothing short of taboo.
Just as soon as the news media reported that a great number of people were found dead in the jungles of Guyana on November 18, 1978, the term “mass suicide” was forever attached to their actions. At that point, none of the members of the media who made that claim had actually investigated whether or not it was indeed a “mass suicide.” Rather that was what they had been told, and they bandied the term about with a great deal of certainty. I was only three years old at the time, but as I grew up, I often heard of Jonestown, always in terms of it having been a cult in which all of the members had committed suicide at the direction of their leader, Jim Jones.
There is something, however, that I think that many people do not understand, at least not on a conscious level: by calling the tragedy at Jonestown a “mass suicide”, society’s collective view of those who died was irreparably damaged. Our society often views those who commit suicide as weak, as sinners who are beyond redemption and who therefore don’t deserve to be mourned or to be given the same sorts of dignities in death as those who die of “natural causes.” A good example of this is the fact that many of those who died were not claimed by their families, perhaps because it was too expensive to do so, as Rebecca Moore describes in an article about her own family’s efforts to retrieve her relatives lost at Jonestown. It is more likely, though, that many of those who died were not claimed by their family out of embarrassment that their kin had “committed suicide”.
The stigma surrounding suicide hasn’t always existed. Most early civilizations didn’t have a stigma against suicide; instead they felt that it was an honorable way to escape an unbearable existence or to release others from the burden of caring for the terminally ill. It was during the early years of Christianity that suicide became an unacceptable practice. Some of the earliest Christian writers maintained that a self-imposed death was a track to martyrdom, something that the truly pious should engage in. This led to such a rise in suicide that Christian churches and Jewish synagogues and temples simply couldn’t keep up with the amount of eulogies that they had to perform for the dead. Therefore, they began to deny any sort of public mourning for those who had died by their own hand, ostensibly to lessen their own workload. In the 4 th century, St. Augustine was the first to condemn suicide publicly, setting three very important Catholic Councils into motion. In 305 C.E., the Council of Guadix purged from their lists all martyrs who had died by their own hand; in 348 C.E., the Council of Carthage condemned those who had committed suicide; and finally, in 363 C.E., the Council of Braga condemned the act and added to their condemnation that proper Christian burial rites and the honor of interment in hallowed ground would be denied to those who had committed suicide. Thomas Aquinas later elaborated upon this, denouncing suicide as a sin for which one could not repent.
The Middle Ages saw all of these denouncements go a step further. If one committed suicide, he or she was not just denied proper burial, but the body was dragged through the streets and abused. Occasionally the corpse’s head would be detached and placed on a pike as a warning to others. The body would then be thrown outside of the city grounds, and no burial of any kind would be given or allowed. In addition, the property of the deceased, as well as all of his or her possessions, would be confiscated from the family. Even those people who attempted suicide were arrested, publicly shamed, and sentenced to death. It is in the Middle Ages that the majority of the negative connotations of suicide were firmly planted.
The denial of a proper burial for suicides was finally lifted by the Catholic Church in 1983, five years after Jonestown. That means that for 678 years, those who died by rtheir own hand were denied their rights in death. Even though the ban has been lifted, the stigma against suicide still exists. It is no longer formal, but has fallen instead to the beliefs of society that those who commit suicide are weak or mentally depraved. I firmly believe that calling the deaths at Jonestown a “mass suicide” colored how those who died were and are viewed. Indeed, many people feel that those who died were both weak (they let Jim Jones and the others make the decision to die for them) and mentally depraved (they were crazy cult members).
The stigma of suicide affected those lost at Jonestown in many ways. The legacy of Peoples Temple will never be what Jim Jones or any of the members wanted it to be: due to the stigma, a vast majority of the good and the bad things (but mostly the good) that were done by Peoples Temple and its members has been dismissed. Those who survived Jonestown, either by not being there at the time or by escaping through their own ingenuity, still face the stigma of having been part of a group that committed suicide. I imagine that they are often asked how they could be part of a group that would do something like that, and for that reason, I expect that many of them are reluctant to talk about their experiences in Peoples Temple, be they good or bad, for fear that they may be judged. Families of the members also face the stigma, and may even feel shame themselves when they remember or mourn their loved ones. As Moore documents in her article, the government autopsied only a handful of bodies, and only with the greatest reluctance. Moreover, it let the stigma of mass suicide guide its early, fateful decisions about disposal of the remains: it transported the bodies from Guyana to the Dover, Delaware on the east coast of the United States, completely across the country from where the vast majority of family members lived. Treating the bodies with such disrespect and acting as if autopsies were pointless and bothersome is exactly what happened to suicides in the Middle Ages. Finally, even now, Peoples Temple really isn’t something that can be discussed in public outside of academia or groups of survivors and family without there being a negative comment. This is the stigma of suicide, so strong that it prevents the common man and woman from learning the truth of Jonestown and of what the movement was all about.
Jim Jones had a sign above his seat in the pavilion which read, “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” I say that the stigma that is associated with the belief that the deaths at Jonestown were a “mass suicide” is doing just that: the stigma is not allowing us to remember and study the past so that we might be able to prevent another such tragedy from occurring.
We mustn’t let the phrase “mass suicide” affect how we view those who lost their lives that day in Jonestown. We must try to climb above what society tells us we should think about individuals who are labeled as suicides. I agree that suicide is a sad event when it occurs, but even if we were to accept as a fact that Peoples Temple members did commit suicide, that certainly doesn’t mean that their lives or what they were attempting to accomplish are invalidated by that. Socrates committed suicide; yet you will find very few individuals who will tell you that his work and his influence on others should be ignored because of his manner of death. Suicide is something that we in the Western Culture need to talk about, need to understand. We’re missing out on a lot if we roundly dismiss those who commit suicide.
The stigma that surrounds suicide has existed for over a thousand years, and whether we are aware of it or not, hearing that an individual or a group of individuals committed suicide still elicits a negative reaction within the vast majority of us. The deaths at Jonestown illustrate this perfectly. We fear what we do not understand, so we dismiss it instead of looking at it and facing our own beliefs. What are we afraid of? That we might find that we are wrong? That perhaps the stigma is enough to cause us to form false opinions? I say yes: the stigma poisons how we view the individuals who died at Jonestown, and it poisons our ability to objectively look at Peoples Temple, their work and even their faults. If we are to truly investigate this group and what really happened on November 18, 1978, then we have to rise above these false beliefs.
I believe we must learn as much as we can about what happened at Jonestown, but until we can move beyond our preconceived ideas, that will be impossible.
(Bonnie Yates earned her BA in Psychology from Northern Illinois University, and did her undergraduate work in the Northern Illinois University Adolescent Suicidology Lab. Her complete collection of writings for the jonestown report may be found here. She may be reached at email@example.com.)