Neither the identity of the victims in what appeared to be a mass suicide near San Diego nor the precise nature of their deaths was clear on Wednesday night. But the incident inevitably prompted comparisons to a series of recent mass suicides by a small and socially isolated religious group that have occurred near the changes of the seasons.
The Order of the Solar Temple, an international organization with a belief that suicide can lead to reincarnation in another dimension, emerged from obscurity with the mass deaths of 53 members in Switzerland and Canada in early October 1994, shortly after the fall equinox.
A second round of suicides, this time claiming 16 lives, took place in a forest outside Grenoble, France, about the time of the winter solstice in 1995.
This peculiar link between mass death and the natural rhythms of the solar year appear to have an echo in the bizarre deaths of at least 39 young men in an exclusive suburb of San Diego on Wednesday. The discovery of the bodies came within a week of the first day of spring, on March 20.
But no police official offered evidence Wednesday night to link the deaths in California to the Solar Temple group, whose leaders died in the first round of suicides 30 months ago.
And one Canadian researcher who has studied the Solar Temple and other small religious groups cast strong doubt that the San Diego deaths were linked to the Solar Temple. The police in Canada had accounted for all known Solar Temple members recently and did not know of any large group of them missing, said Mike Kropveld, executive director of Info-Cult, a Montreal organization. In addition, he said, the Solar Temple was not recruiting.
“There’s nothing at this point that appears linked to the Solar Temple,” he said.
The police said the dead men in San Diego were all found lying on their backs, rather than scattered in random positions of violent death. In this way, the incident bore another, though very slight, similarity to the Solar Temple incidents, in which some bodies were found lying in a circle, the heads pointing outward.
But what set the San Diego suicides apart was the dead themselves. All reported by the police as men between the ages of 18 and 24, they were a more select group than the dead of the two Solar Temple suicides, which claimed both men and women, as well as children.
In those earlier cases, too, the evidence of violent death was readily apparent, in gunshots to the head in the case of many victims, and the post-mortem fires ignited by bombs the group set to immolate their corpses, apparently in the belief that fire would speed their entry into an exalted state.
In San Diego, the police said the bodies they discovered bore signs of neither struggle nor trauma, an absence that further deepened the mystery of the deaths.
What can be said, however, is that mass deaths of small, socially isolated religious groups represent the dark side of the spiritual searching and decline of traditional church structures that mark the last years of the 20th century.
Group suicide and violent confrontation with government authorities have recurred with increasing frequency in the last 20 years, a testimony to the intensity of the alienation experienced by some groups of believers embarked on their own search for ultimate meaning.
Suicide claimed the lives of more than 900 people, most of them Americans, in November 1978, at Jonestown in Guyana, victims of a failed experiment in communal living under an authoritarian preacher. In April 1993, more than 75 people who had gathered around another charismatic figure, David Koresh, died when a fire swept through their fortified compound near Waco, Texas, in the midst of a long and violent confrontation with federal agents.