Last November I went back to Evergreen cemetery for two different services remembering the victims of Jonestown. I can tell you this: every cliché you can think of them being different was true. Yet in the end, love did prevail.
Reverend Jynona Norwood has held memorial services for the victims every year since 1979, but this was the first she would conduct since the new Jonestown memorial was dedicated at the site the previous May. Twenty-seven members of her family died in Jonestown, and she remains violently opposed to Jim Jones’ name being on it.
The service was scheduled to begin at 11 am. When I got off of BART at 10, I saw a flower stand selling irises. Surprised they were blooming in autumn, I bought a bouquet.
I arrived at Evergreen half an hour later. I knew I’d be writing about the service, and I realized the irises would call attention to myself, so I managed to drop them off at Evergreen’s office before hiking up the hill. I was met at the site by a young woman who said she was a representative from the mayor’s office. My ears pricked up. What’s going on? I sat with the reporters and took notes.
The first thing I noticed was that people were looking at the display of photos of everyone who died on November 18, 1978, a display laid out by Peoples Temple survivor Kathy Tropp. The mural is lovely yet heart-wrenching: hundreds of people looking at the camera smiling, frozen in another time. Before the service began, though, two women took it down. I worried they were stealing it. but then I saw them talk to Evergreen’s manager Ron Haulman so I relaxed. It was then I noticed that the new memorial was covered up in bolts of red and black cloth.
Replacing the murals, and instead of allowing the memorial to be displayed, members of Reverend Norwood’s congregation were putting up signs of their own, denouncing the new memorial. It was bitterly cold, and I was freezing, and as the placement of the signage delayed the service, I grew irritated. Why would Norwood object to the photo mural being there? Weren’t we there to remember the people who died? Seeing their faces full of hope and wonder was a way to remember.
I was also upset that there were only five chairs available, and all were taken by young members of Norwood’s congregation. An elderly man with a cane stood to the side. I knew then I would not be able to look at the service objectively.
Reverend Norwood arrived, but the service was still delayed as she stopped to talk to the press. Finally an announcement was made (twenty-five minutes late) that there were technical delays in getting everything started. It was an explanation, but I was still irritated, and still cold.
Finally, the service started. A cell phone went off during the Lord’s Prayer. The woman from the mayor’s office came up to the podium, saying she had a proclamation from the mayor’s office declaring it “Cherishing the Children” day. After she was done with her speech, her cell phone rang.
After several prayers, Reverend Norwood stepped up to the podium. There’s no question Norwood is a powerful speaker. Using the metaphor of a vampire, she spoke of how Jim Jones lured people to Jonestown. The children of Jonestown, she declared, could’ve been Oscar winners, the next Michael Jackson or Justin Bieber. They could’ve cured diabetes, other diseases. I agreed with her. No doubt the children of Jonestown could’ve gone on to do wonderful big bold things.
Yet Norwood dwelled on Jim Jones. Not that it was wrong, but if this was “Cherishing the Children” day, I wanted to hear about them. I wanted to hear about the girls who were dancing on the NBC footage. I wanted to hear about teenagers Judy and Patricia Houston, how shy they were when being interviewed.
As a writer, I cherish the details. In my still-in-progress young adult Jonestown novel, two of my characters, Tara and Noelle, are teenagers in Jonestown. I knew things about them: They loved The Bay City Rollers, purple stationary. They hated the food, although it did make them skinnier. They had crushes on the boys on the basketball team. Yes, they were fictional, but from all the research I did on Jonestown I knew it was based on nuggets of truth. I couldn’t find any nuggets about the children in Norwood’s speech.
Norwood then asked to pray for a group of people, including Stephan Jones and Jim Jones Junior and everyone else who supported the new memorial. She ended her remarks by saying, “And now to quote our beloved President Ronald Reagan when he visited Russia, ‘Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!’”
I covered my face, trying so hard not to laugh. I also pondered the whole irony: To take a Ronald Reagan quote out of context at a memorial service was one thing, but knowing that many of the Jonestown victims were devout socialists made the Ronald Reagan quote at their memorial service like Nancy Reagan singing the praises of John Hinckley Jr.
After Jynona finished, others came up to speak, including the elderly gentleman. Norwood interrupted him to mention he was one of the first people to give money for her memorial. Still, no one offered a chair for him to sit. This is when I had to take a deep breath and leave.
Ron Haulman was nearby. “Are you all right?” he asked, concerned.
“I’m incredibly cold and I can’t take it anymore,” I confessed. He understood, then said I could sit at the office until I warmed up. I sat there feeling incredibly sad, wondering if I should go home. The irises were at the desk. I was starving, I was cold, and incredibly discouraged. Yet I still had the irises. I looked at them, still wondering how could irises were in bloom.
Finally I made myself get something to eat, then walked back.
Now it was time for the second service, the memorial arranged by the Peoples Temple/Jonestown survivors. I was relieved to see the photo mural back up. Several of the survivors who knew me ran up and gave me hugs. I was feeling better, my heart rate going down. Other people chatted, hugged, held hands.
Jim Jones Jr. – who had been instrumental in bringing the memorial to Evergreen – called everyone to gather on the left side. That was when I learned that Juanell Smart was going to have the cremated remains of her two oldest children, the two who were identified – Tinetra Fain and Al Smart – buried near the memorial which sits atop the grave the holds the remains of her two younger, unidentified children, Scott and Teri Smart.
We all drew near Juanell, me still holding the flowers. A light rain started. She placed her children’s ashes down in the newly dug hole. The only sounds heard were sniffling noses and rain falling on the trees. One mother was able to finally walk that burning bridge and know her children were all in one place. Another mother might never have that privilege.
When I looked at the memorial again, I realized why I had chosen to bring irises. When I was sixteen, I read an essay about a private investigator named Melody Ermachild who was tapped to go to Guyana, look around the deserted Jonestown site, then give evidence for the grand jury investigating what happened. After getting evidence, she made small talk with a local woman there. The woman told Ermachild her son Derek died in Jonestown. The woman’s name was Iris Dawson.
I placed the irises on the flat stones of the memorial. I don’t know if I’ll ever meet Iris Dawson. Yet I was glad there was irises on her son’s grave, that people knew that on November 18, 1978, Derek Dawson was in the wrong place and the wrong time. But they could read his name. The irises were from me, and from Derek’s mom.
My regular life resumed a moment later. People who knew I had been at the earlier service wanted to hear about it. My friends in my new community know about my Jonestown novel and wanted to hear about that. Before I left, though, I looked back at the grave one more time, hoping that somewhere Iris Dawson knew she was not forgotten that day. That no one who died thirty-three years before had been forgotten. That they were loved.
(Jennifer Kathleen Gibbons is a regular contributor to the jonestown report. Her other article in this edition is You’ve Got To Pick Up Every Stitch: A Review of Season of the Witch. Her previous articles appear here. She is also the author of the two recently-published collections: a book of essays, Take What You Got and Fly with It; and three short stories in I Woke Up In Love This Morning. She may be reached at email@example.com.)