What happened to the bodies from Jonestown?

Following the deaths in Jonestown, the U.S. and Guyanese governments negotiated over the disposition of the bodies. The delays in securing the Jonestown site and the tropical jungle conditions meant that the remains had already started to decompose by the time they were discovered, and it might have been difficult from the start to gather conclusive evidence of what happened. However, the additional delays, the proposal that was circulated – and then withdrawn – to bury the bodies in the jungle, the decision to try to slow decomposition by embalming, and the lack of medical examiners at the scene all served to compromise whatever forensic information was gathered.

The bodies of the Jonestown dead were airlifted to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, thousands of miles across the country from where most relatives and friends of the Temple members lived. One explanation for this is given in an interview with Lt. Joseph Saxon, Information Officer at Dover AFB, in November 1978.

Autopsies were performed on seven of the bodies, but the length of time between the deaths and the autopsies, which had been complicated by the embalming procedures, made the autopsies almost meaningless. (Further discussion of the autopsies may be found here.)

Most of the bodies received nothing more than a cursory identification – if ID was possible – and families were notified to make arrangements for disposal. Many bodies, especially those of the children, were never identified, and some family members were too poor (or too ashamed) to claim their relatives’ remains. Those 408 bodies are buried in a mass grave at Evergreen Cemetery in Oakland, where a memorial service is held every November 18 at 11 a.m.

An article about the government’s handling of the bodies appears here.