OAKLAND -- Four granite plaques embedded on a raised concrete slab in Oakland's Evergreen Cemetery now bear the names in alphabetical order -- including that of the Rev. Jim Jones -- of all 918 people who died in the Jonestown tragedy in the jungles of Guyana on Nov. 18, 1978, believed to be the largest mass suicide in history.
The new plaques, to be officially unveiled at a private dedication ceremony May 29, are a long-awaited tangible tribute to all the victims. Of the dead, 409 unclaimed bodies were buried in a mass grave in Evergreen, and many of their names were not known until the past couple of years, said Fielding McGehee of the Jonestown Institute in San Diego, part of the group that raised money for the memorial project.
And while the inclusion of Jones' name has enraged some victims' families and those who had proposed another memorial -- sans Jones -- organizers of the now-standing markers say they wanted to present a complete historic picture of the tragic events.
"The decision to put (Jim Jones') name on the list was discussed, and we talked to a lot of people about it," said John Cobb, of Oakland, who grew up in Jones' Peoples Temple religious sect and lost his mother in the mass suicide.
"But we decided that this is a memorial for historical purposes, listing everyone who died there," he said. "There's no side note saying Jones was the leader or anything special about him. He's just on the list. I'm sure people will have their feelings about his name being there, but we wanted to tell the story of what happened. This is not meant as a judgment stone."
"It's phenomenal to get this done," said Jones' adopted son, Jim Jones Jr., of Pacifica. "Those 409 people finally have their names on a gravestone," he said. "Other victims are buried elsewhere and have their names at those sites. But there has never been a marker with all the names together before, to mark this loss in a complete way.
"Sometimes my name distracts from the real purpose of the memorial," Jones Jr. said. "People say, 'Why is your father's name on there?' But the point is, it's a memorial for the tragedy. Not just Peoples Temple members. The news reporters who were killed, and Congressman Ryan -- they're on there, too. We're not designating the white hats and the black hats. This gives the story an end, finally, after 32 years."
For many relatives of those who died, however, Jonestown remains a never-ending saga as they recall how Jones led followers to his communal compound in Guyana, promising a utopian community. On that November day in 1978, Rep. Leo Ryan and others intending to investigate the compound were killed by Jones' associates after landing at a nearby airport. Those in the compound were then forced to drink cyanide-laced punch at Jones' command.
Jynona Norwood, a Southern California minister who lost 27 relatives at Jonestown and has vehemently opposed the inclusion of Jones on the memorial, could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
At the new memorial site, the four plaques have been placed next to the original memorial marker erected in 1979 by the Guyana Emergency Relief Committee at Evergreen, and surrounding landscaping continues this week. The new memorial was funded through private donations raised by the Jonestown Memorial Fund.
More than 120 people -- former members of Peoples Temple, as well as relatives of those who died in Guyana -- contributed more than $20,000 in less than two months to pay for the new plaques.
Evergreen Cemetery donated an equal amount in labor and material to the effort, McGehee said.
At least 200 people are expected to attend the dedication ceremony.