An overdue memorial in Oakland

San Francisco Chronicle/December 3, 2007

Thirty years late, the Bay Area - and maybe the nation and world - will get the memorial it needs. On a sloping hill in Oakland beneath a towering eucalyptus will be a black and pink granite monument to the people who died in Jonestown.

The spot is where some 400 bodies now rest, flown back from the jungle outpost where Rev. Jim Jones oversaw the mass murder of his followers in 1978. After several cemeteries turned down requests to bury the dead, Evergreen Cemetery in Oakland accepted the task.

Right now, there's a standard-issue headstone, much like the hundreds elsewhere in the rolling acres of the graveyard. Locating the spot can take some effort and wrong turns. There are no path markers or maps.

The plain gray marker, set off by several scraggly rose bushes, is as spare as a telegram: "In memory of the victims of the Jonestown tragedy" with the fateful date of Nov. 18, 1978, and location of Jonestown, Guyana, chiseled below.

Minimal as it sounds, it carries huge power. "It's the most photographed tombstone in the world," says Buck Kamphausen, Evergreen's owner who agreed to accept and bury the bodies. "I get sent photos of it from all over the world."

If that sounds like a stretch, it's hard to deny the spot makes a scalding impression: So many dead from such a horrific event, and here they lie, stacked two deep under several hundred square feet of turf. If you like history spare and tucked away, then this shaded spot at the end of twisty path will do.

But it's not enough for the scores of friends and relatives of those killed in Jonestown. Posterity and personal emotion deserve better. Every year on the anniversary date they've gathered at the cemetery to greet each other and listen to speeches and sermons.

This year, some 50 to 60 showed up for a decidedly special moment beneath a tent put up for the day. A giant check was presented, totaling $30,000, to begin work on a large-scale memorial. The yard-high gravestone will make way for much bigger project. The new one will stand six feet tall and 18 feet long, a dark wall sitting on the edge of the hill overlooking Oakland and the bay. Evergreen's owners will donate a reinforcing wall.

In a bow to the famous Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C., the design will be done in black granite and carry the names of the 913 people who died. A center section in pink granite will be devoted to the 279 names of temple children and infants, among the most helpless of Jones' victims who were forced to drink poison-laced fruit drink. This arresting fact - that over a quarter of the dead were youngsters - has given the project its title: Cherishing the Children Jonestown Memorial Wall.

Memories remain strong. Ron Cabral, now a retired middle school principal, once coached an all-Peoples Temple baseball team at a San Francisco high school in 1976. The kids, he said, were brawny, enthusiastic players, who went undefeated for a six-game stretch.

Then, one by one, the players left, telling Cabral they were off to a church mission in Guyana. Cabral followed the story of the temple's increasing isolation and eventual doom. Even now, he can still tick off his baseball team line-up, noting which players never returned. It's an experience that's led him to co-write a book on his recollections.

Recollections like his have led survivors, friends and families to talk about the memorial project for years. Now, as lives reknit and plans clarified, it should finally happen. The new landmark should be ready for next November's 30th anniversary date. Encouragement in the form of support from leaders like Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Rep. Barbara Lee have urged the project on as a way to heal the losses these families feel.

Still, there is nothing simple about this place or its story. Tossing out notions of "closure" won't work in a human disaster this big. The temple - its appeal, history and final descent - remain a complicated mystery. Books, movies and plays that have all tried to examine Jones and his mad-king grip on his followers.

The hillside memorial shifts this endless pondering in a new direction. Stop the blaming and speculation. Forget the bent religion and strange politics.

Think, instead, of the people who were lost. Here they lie, beneath a grassy hillside, minutes from the busy 580 freeway. These are individuals whose names will be carved into stone and remembered at last. The best part of the temple - the people who populated it - will be saved.

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