The widower of a woman who died over 35 years ago in the mass murder/suicide in Jonestown, Guyana, has finally found her remains, which were discovered along with those of nine other victims in an empty funeral home in Delaware. More than 900 people died in Jonestown after drinking punch laced with cyanide, the majority of whom were followers of Jim Jones and his “Peoples Temple.”
Irvin Ray Perkins, 64, had never known what happened to the remains of his 28-year-old wife, Maud Ester Perkins. He was notified by officials on Thursday that they had been recovered in the Dover funeral home. He plans to keep the ashes of his wife on his fireplace mantle.
Hundreds of bodies, already decomposing, were removed from Jonestown in 1978 and were transported to the largest U.S. military mortuary, located on the Dover Air Force Base, but not all of the remains have been identified or claimed. As bodies were identified, about six local funeral homes were tasked with assisting the families in making arrangements. The unclaimed bodies of 409 people were interred in a mass grave located in Evergreen Cemetery in Oakland, California. According to funeral directors, it is fairly common for family members to not claim cremated remains.
Thursday’s discovery of nine packaged and clearly marked containers holding cremated remains has opened old wounds for both survivors and families of victims, which included a U.S. congressman and hundreds of children. The ashes found are accompanied by the death certificates of the victims, which list the names and location of death. Names of the victims will not be released until the families have been notified.
The vacant, run-down Minus Funeral Home at which the Jonestown remains were discovered is now owned by a bank, which notified officials upon discovering the remains. A spokesperson for the Delaware Division of Forensic Science revealed that also found on the property were 24 other containers with labeled and identified remains inside and five which were not immediately identifiable.
The Peoples Temple was active in the early 1970s and was run by Jim Jones, who established a drug rehab program and free health clinic in San Francisco. As his activities began to garner scrutiny and accusations of wrongdoing, he moved his operations to the jungles of Guyana, South America, bringing hundreds of his followers with him, who believed that they would be founding a society without racial tension and with equal justice for all.
U.S. Representative Leo Ryan arrived at Jonestown with a group of journalists in order to uncover information related to allegations of abuse by members of the group. Ryan, along with three journalists and one defector from Jonestown, was ambushed and killed on a jungle airstrip on Nov. 18, 1978, by Jonestown members, who confronted the group as they prepared to leave the country with 15 members who had asked to return to the U.S. with them.
Afterwards, Jones organized a ritual at the group’s agricultural commune in which members were ordered to commit suicide by drinking grape punch laced with cyanide. Children, of which there were 227 killed, were given the poisonous punch first by members who used syringes to administer the liquid. Survivors of the event claim that although most of the group did so willingly, those who refused were either forced to drink the punch, injected with a poison substance or shot. Several were able to escape by running into the jungle. Jones was killed by a single bullet to his head, but it is unknown whether the wound was self-inflicted or whether somebody else had shot him.
Chandler said that there is no evidence that any criminal actions led to the remains being stored at the funeral home, but rather they appeared to have gone unclaimed. However, Dover police have begun the process of excavating areas on the property with loosely compacted soil in order to determine if any other remains are on the property.
By Jennifer Pfalz