DOVER, Del. — Nine unclaimed containers found inside a funeral home hold the ashes of victims of the 1978 mass cult Jonestown Massacre, according to Dover police and the Delaware Department of Safety and Homeland Security Division of Forensic Science.
The discovery was among 38 small containers of unclaimed ashes found inside the former Minus Funeral Home by the property's owner, said Kimberly Chandler, a spokeswoman with the state Department of Safety and Homeland Security.
More than 900 members of the Peoples Temple Agricultural Project cult led by American preacher Jim Jones died in a night of mass murder and suicide on Nov. 18, 1978. Jones ordered his followers, mostly Americans, to commit suicide. Jones' followers drank cyanide-laced, grape-flavored punch while others were shot by guards loyal to the cult leader. The incident marked one of the most horrific mass killings in American history.
State forensic investigators responded last week to a request to check the one-story building, tucked into a downtown Dover neighborhood, after the containers were discovered. Dover police provided assistance.
"It was definitely a shock when we found out exactly what we had," said Dover police spokesman Mark Hoffman. "Obviously it's an intriguing story and a tragic story, and to think this was found right here in our jurisdiction, about six blocks from the police department, makes it very compelling to us."
The containers of ashes, 33 of which were marked and identified, were dated from a period spanning from approximately 1970 through the 1990s.
Documentation found in the funeral home, including death certificates, helped forensic investigators tie the nine remains to the Jonestown Massacre, Chandler said. State forensic investigators have taken possession of the remains and are continuing to identify them and make notifications to family members.
"We don't know why they were unclaimed," she said. "What we intend to do is identify family members, reach out to them and make them aware that the cremains are available to them."
The remains ended up at the former funeral home, and others in the state, in the immediate aftermath of the massacre.
At the time, many local funeral homes assisted families in making arrangements for their loved ones, said Doretha Minus, who co-owned the former funeral home with her husband Edward Sr., who is now deceased. Family members would call and arrange to have their loved ones ashes flown home. Some couldn't afford it, others never called.
"It was just tragic. It was a busy, busy time," Minus, 74, said at her apartment in Dover. "They were from all over the place."
A total of 913 body boxes — more than 900 victims of the shocking mass killing and a handful of others, including leaders of the Peoples Temple — were flown from Guyana to the Port Mortuary at Dover Air Force Base, where the bodies were identified and prepared for burial, according to articles published at the time in The News Journal.
At least 29 of the Jonestown victims were cremated in New Jersey before the practice was temporarily halted because the six Delaware morticians who brought the bodies across the state line were not licensed to do so. Delaware initially barred the cremation or burial of the Jonestown dead in the state because death certificates were not immediately available.
It's not clear whether any cremations or burials ever took place in Delaware. New Jersey subsequently granted permission for up to 150 additional cremations, but it's unknown whether any more were actually performed.
After at least 280 bodies were released to relatives, more than 600 remained stored at the air base for months during wrangling over who would pay for transporting the rest to California, where the utopia-seeking movement was based. In addition to individual cost concerns, more than 200 of those remaining were children, many of them wards of that state.
On Apr. 26, 1979, the first of 545 unclaimed bodies were loaded onto a van to be shipped west. Most were buried in an Oakland cemetery.
It's unclear why those shipments did not include the unclaimed cremains at Minus, which remained stored in the morgue. Edward Minus died in 2012 and the funeral home was foreclosed on in October 2013 after their son, Edward Jr., was unable to take the business over. The building is now bank-owned, according to property records.
"It's been so long … how many years has it been?" Minus said. "It's so sad that we have to relive this all over again."
She said she believes whoever discovered the remains, and the forensic investigators, are just doing their job — in essence, picking up where she and her husband left off decades ago.
"The state will have a better way of finding those folks," Minus said. "I hope they do."
The discovery of the ashes inside the former funeral home building prompted authorities to dig outside on Wednesday to check for any other unclaimed remains. None were found. During the dig, authorities found an arrowhead, two animal bones, oyster shells and charcoal outside, according to the release.
Several bronze grave markers for deceased veterans serving in World War I through the Vietnam War also were found inside the facility during the initial check by state forensic investigators. The markers will be presented to family members if they can be located or returned to the Veterans Administration, officials said.
Minus said she was surprised when she heard authorities were digging around the property. She had no idea what they could have been looking for. Since opening in 1971, there were never any problems at the family-run business. It was her husband's dream to own a funeral home.
She said she was relieved that Wednesday's dig wasn't related to any criminal activity or foul play. It's important, she said, that her husband's reputation remains intact.