(RNS) When the Rev. Jim Jones led more than 900 followers to commit mass suicide at his compound in the jungles of Guyana in 1978, was he, too, a victim of the massacre — or simply its cause?
That seemingly philosophical question has recently become concrete.
Some relatives of Jonestown victims are battling a proposed memorial at an Oakland, Calif., cemetery that would list 918 victims who died at Jonestown — including its notorious namesake.
“We are not going to honor Jim Jones,” said Jynona Norwood, who lost 27 members of her extended family at Jonestown. “To honor Jim Jones would be the same as placing Adolf Hitler’s name on the Holocaust memorial for the Jewish community. (Jones) does not deserve to be remembered.”
The dispute among Jonestown survivors illustrates some of the challenges tied to memorializing one of the most infamous mass suicides in American history.
Norwood said she is preparing to file suit over the inclusion of Jones’ name, but she declined to comment on the specifics of any legal action.
The proposed memorial is spearheaded by Fielding McGehee III, who lost his sister-in-law and other relatives at Jonestown, and would be erected in Evergreen Cemetery, where 400 unidentified victims of the tragedy are buried.
McGehee is working with Jones’ adopted son, Jim Jones Jr., and another survivor, John Cobb, to create a memorial that remembers everyone who died Nov. 18, 1978.
“The whole point of the monument has been to say 918 people died that day,” McGehee said. “No more and no fewer than 918 names.”
This much is known: Jones, the leader of the People’s Temple cult, led his followers in a mass suicide in Jonestown 33 years ago. Many of the victims’ remains were claimed and buried with family; more than 400 unclaimed Jonestown dead — mostly children — were buried in the Oakland cemetery.
To date, no permanent memorial has been built. Norwood, the executive director of Cherishing the Children/Guyana Tribute Foundation, has been raising funds since 1979.
“The issue really has been, for most people and ourselves included, about putting up a memorial that is 30 years overdue,” McGehee said. “We have received the donations of more than 100 people, including people who absolutely hated Jim Jones on Nov. 18.”
For McGehee and his coalition, the decision to put Jones’ name on the monument was simple. If you try to separate responsibility for what happened, the only truly innocent victims were the children, McGehee said.
“Can you put a line in the sand that says this defines responsibility for what happened in Jonestown that day?” McGehee said. “Jones is also a victim of his own madness.”
Other massacre memorials — to the 13 people killed at Columbine (Colo.) High School in 1999, or the 32 people killed at Virginia Tech in 2007 — do not include the names of the killers.
Ron Haulman, the executive director of Evergreen Cemetery, confirmed that McGehee’s group had presented plans for a memorial and that those plans have been approved.
Haulman said the cemetery leaves the design and content of any memorial to those erecting the structure. No one in the cemetery officially approved or disapproved Jones’ name, Haulman said.
“Since no one involved in the operation of the cemetery was directly affected by what happened at Jonestown, we really can not place an arbitrary judgment on the proposed memorial design, other than to say whether or not it is suitable as a physical issue,” Haulman said.
Norwood’s competing design would not include Jones’ name but would list Rep. Leo Ryan and several others who were killed while investigating Jonestown.
McGehee’s proposed memorial would list all 918 names on four large plaques on the ground next to an existing tombstone that’s dedicated to “the victims of the Jonestown tragedy.”
The memorial would lie across the ground of the hill, under which the victims are buried because the shallowness and width of the graves prevents an upright monument. McGehee said his group has raised $20,000 to pay for it.