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Jonestown memorial going forward

Friday, November 19, 2010

OAKLAND, Calif. -- A group of Peoples Temple survivors announced plans Thursday for a granite monument inscribed with the names of more than 900 people who died in the Jonestown tragedy 32 years ago to the day.

Some ex-members have grown impatient with efforts by the Rev. Jynona Norwood over the decades to erect a 36-foot-long stone wall at the Oakland cemetery where more than 400 unidentified and unclaimed victims are buried.

Those planning the new memorial include Jim Jones Jr., an adopted son of the temple leader. Jones said it's time to move forward with an alternative monument -- four large stone slabs that would be sunk flat on the grassy mass grave site overlooking San Francisco Bay.

"It's been 32 years," said Jones, who lost his parents, his pregnant wife and several other relatives in the mass murders and suicides. "I have loved ones and their name is not listed anywhere."

Norwood, whose family lost 27 relatives in the tragedy, said she would press ahead with her own memorial, even though cemetery management says it is impractical for the site. Asked about the competing plan, she said angrily, "They want the people forgotten, so put their names on the ground."

The new memorial plans came as about 40 people attended services featuring civil rights activist and comedian Dick Gregory.

Norwood has conducted annual services that eventually attracted ex-members as it became more widely accepted that they were idealistic people betrayed by a minister who built an integrated church with a social message. But some were put off by the religious tenor of the services or felt that Norwood excessively demonized Jones while paying tribute to the dead members. Dozens gravitated to private anniversary gatherings here in recent years.

Another sore point emerged on the 30th anniversary service when Norwood brought the first panels of the wall on a sturdy trailer. She made clear the Rev. Jones' name would not be inscribed on the panels, saying it would be an insult to the victims.

"It's like putting Hitler's name on a memorial for the Jewish community," she said Thursday.

The organizers of the alternative monument believe the memorial should be all-inclusive to mark everyone who died.

Jim Jones Jr., now a medical devices salesman who is married with three sons, said his father was a victim of his own madness and he wants an inclusive monument memorializing all who died.

"We are concerned that our relatives be remembered," he said. "We are not thinking about who caused it and what happened after 32 years."

During a fact-finding mission to Jonestown to investigate reports of abuses of members, San Francisco-area Rep. Leo Ryan, three newsmen and a church defector were ambushed and killed by temple gunmen on a remote jungle airstrip on Nov. 18, 1978. Jones then orchestrated a ritual of mass murder and suicide several miles away in the temple's agricultural commune.

Some Jonestown residents escaped before or during the violence, and other members, like Jim Jones Jr., survived because they were away that day.

Fielding McGehee III, who edits the online Jonestown Report and who lost in-laws in the violence, said the necessary $20,000 for the memorial has been raised through an anonymous donor, who will be repaid from future donations.

Two years ago, Norwood displayed the first two completed panels of what was designed to be a 7-foot-tall black wall with an 8-foot red center panel.

Norwood had to raise at least another $70,000 in addition to the $30,000 already spent. But she said Thursday that she has about $2,000.

Cemetery director Ronald Haulman said the wall was poorly suited for the sloping site because it would require more than $200,000 in foundation work to make it safe and some caskets would likely need to be moved.

"It would be like giving an engineer a million dollars to build a home on top of Mount Kilimanjaro," he said. "It simply would never happen."

Haulman said details for construction of the newly proposed monument -- four gray granite panels measuring 40 inches by 64 inches and about 3 inches thick -- are being finalized and it should be installed by the 33rd anniversary next year. The cost, he said, will be $15,000 to $20,000.

The cemetery said it would try to accommodate the massive wall elsewhere on the grounds, but Norwood said that was unacceptable. "I'm going ahead," she said, adding that she was consulting a lawyer.


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