OAKLAND -- Cremated remains discovered in a foreclosed Delaware funeral home have stirred up painful memories of the Jonestown Massacre, when more than 900 Americans -- many from the Bay Area -- died in a mass suicide-murder in Guyana.
The surprise discovery of the ashes of nine bodies has stunned some survivors and family members nearly 36 years after Peoples Temple cult leader Jim Jones ordered his followers to drink cyanide-laced punch at their remote South American jungle settlement.
"I'm saddened, I'm really saddened, that these nine people don't have a final resting place," said Jim Jones, Jr., the cult leader's son, who runs a memorial fund for victims. "The important thing is, how can we -- if the families are unable -- work to remedy this situation?"
Until this week, Oakland's Evergreen Cemetery was thought to be the home of all unclaimed and unidentified remains from the Nov. 18, 1978 tragedy. The cemetery in 1979 volunteered to accept 409 bodies -- many of them children -- after cemeteries in Marin and San Mateo counties rejected them following residents' complaints. A memorial was erected in 2011 over the hillside East Oakland burial ground.
But how at least nine other remains ended up sitting in urns at the former Minus Funeral Home, in Dover, Del., is a mystery.
The most likely explanation has something to do with the mortuary's proximity to Dover Air Force Base, where the U.S. military brings home fallen soldiers and others who die overseas, said Dover Police Cpl. Mark Hoffman. The federal government flew all 913 bodies to the Delaware base, embalmed them, put them in airtight steel coffins and stacked them in hangars pending burial arrangements, according to Oakland Tribune archives. The government then contracted with local morticians.
One woman who lost two sisters in the massacre said she remembers that funeral home vividly.
"The bodies of my two sisters -- Carolyn Moore Layton and Ann Elizabeth Moore -- were processed at Minus Funeral Home," said Rebecca Moore, a religion professor at San Diego State University, in an email Thursday.
"I imagine that other families dealt with this funeral home as well, but I don't know who they might be. I will say that Mr. and Mrs. Minus were very kind to us, when we woke them up in the middle of the night, asking for help."
Hoffman said the funeral homeowner is deceased. Someone touring the dilapidated bank-owned home last week found 38 containers holding cremated remains spanning a period between 1970 and the 1990s. Of that group, nine have been identified as Jonestown victims.
"There's no criminal element to this, no foul play suspected," Hoffman said of the long-forgotten remains. "Everything was apparently stored properly."
Moore has been critical of the U.S. government's process for recovering the bodies and investigating their deaths, but in an essay she remembered the Minus home fondly: "The owner and his wife were like many members of the Temple itself: concerned, friendly, and black. They listened to us explain our need for autopsies and agreed to help us find a pathologist somewhere in the state who would perform them," because the Justice Department at first refused to do so.
Delaware's Division of Forensic Science is now trying to notify relatives and declined to release the victims' names. "We're in the early stages right now," said spokeswoman Kimberly Chandler.
Jones Jr., of Pacifica, said he suspected that the remains might belong to victims whose families originally sought to retrieve them but never did.
"It was a horrific event," he said. "Some family members were so distraught, they couldn't get with it ... some people economically were unable to make arrangements."
His father ran the Peoples Temple in San Francisco in the early 1970s after moving it from rural Mendocino County. He established a free health clinic and a drug rehabilitation program, eventually emerging as a political force. But allegations of wrongdoing mounted, and Jones moved the settlement to Guyana. The cult leader believed he would be safe there from what he perceived as media and police persecution. Hundreds of followers moved to Jonestown, seeking socialism and racial harmony.
On Nov. 18, 1978, gunmen from the Peoples Temple cult ambushed and killed U.S. Rep. Leo Ryan, D-San Mateo, three journalists and a defector from the group at a remote airstrip as they visited on a fact-finding mission to investigate reports of abuses of members.
Hayward resident Sherwin Harris, now 78, was one of several parents of cult members who went on the trip hoping to get their children to come back home. He met with his daughter, Liane, in the capital, Georgetown, but a short time later "she was dragged upstairs and murdered along with her half-brother, and sister, and mother," he said.
Jones orchestrated a ritual of mass murder and suicide at the temple's agricultural commune, ordering followers to drink cyanide-laced grape punch. Most of them complied, although survivors described some people being shot, injected with poison, or forced to drink the deadly beverage when they resisted.
Harris said he might have been the only person to bring home a slain loved one home on his own, using the same plane ticket he bought for her return. She was buried in a family plot in Colma. He said he thinks about her every day.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.