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In Death, ‘Immortality’

Fri., March 28, 1997

For them, death was not tragic.

For people who called themselves monks and lived in a virtual cloister, tied to each other and to astrological portents, death was apparently not an end as much as a transition.

“I’m sure they were convinced of their immortality,” said Dr. James Breckenridge, professor of religion at Baylor University in Waco, Texas.

“We need to know more,” Breckenridge and other experts said about the apparent suicides of 39 people in a mansion on a hilltop in Rancho Santa Fe, Calif. But, he said, death might well have been seen as “anything but a tragedy for these people.

The dead were Web site designers and members of a group called Heaven’s Gate. In videotaped farewells, the 21 women and 18 men appeared to be happily anticipating the shedding of “their containers” and moving on to a higher “stage” of life, said the man who received the tapes from an employee and called police.

“They believed they were going to be taken away. … by a UFO,” said the man, Nick Matzorkis, who runs a computer company in Beverly Hills and who employs a former cult member. They believed the UFO was traveling behind the comet Hale-Bopp, which is currently passing by the Earth, Matzorkis said in television interviews.

For most religions with a concept of heaven, death is not completely frightening. Heaven is to be a better life, so why avoid going there? Particularly if you are going with friends.

“As with all these things,” said E. Mark Stern, a New York clinical psychologist who has worked with cult members, “the idea of a mass suicide is a kind of blurring of individuality.”

When people submit to a group identity, death does not seem such a great loss, he said. “Dying with other people has been found to be not so scary,” he said.

“When we are all sort of the same, it doesn’t require a lot.”

Yet investigators and experts are still puzzling over who and what inspired these people to take a combination of phenobarbital and vodka. They hark back to the mass deaths of the followers of such cult leaders as Branch Davidian David Koresh in Waco and Jim Jones in Guyana, and the suicide cult of the Solar Temple in Canada.

Clint Van Zandt, a former FBI behavioral scientist, said all mass suicides have one thing in common: a dominant, charismatic leader. Van Zandt remembers talking to Koresh, who claimed he was the Christ.

When a group of people is looking for a reason to live and when someone passes himself off as a deity with special knowledge, the others become subservient, he said.

“You buy into who this person is, and you start to give up your own ability to make decisions and choices,” said Van Zandt. “The leader’s individual choice becomes the choice of the group.”

Van Zandt said that while it appears initially that nothing criminal occurred, it is important to know the leader’s decision-making process.

“Why did he make the decision now?” the former FBI agent asked. “Is it like in biblical times, when the wise men were looking for a star and now we have the sign of the comet?”

Van Zandt said he wondered if something else might have been going on in the leader’s life, personally or professionally “that would cause him to say, ‘oops, I have problems and I will take the group with me.’ “The financial and personal aspects of the leader’s life might lend itself as a reason over the tail of a comet.”

Police found the bodies of the men and women Wednesday. They appeared to have died peacefully, in their sleep, lying on their backs, arms at their sides, each covered across the face and chest with a triangular shroud of purple cloth, a color Christians relate to the times of advancing miracles, such as Advent and Lent.

But Breckenridge said the members of Heaven’s Gate, who removed their shoes upon entering their mansion stocked with rented computers and bulk food, seemed to draw less from Christian traditions than from Eastern religions and “a tempting mix” of “technology and metaphysics.”

They very well might have lived as computer age “gnostics,” initiates of a select group, with access to special, arcane truths, said William Dinges, who teaches about new religions at Catholic University in Washington, D.C.

Part of the mystique of the ancient tradition of gnosticism is that it is “very antimaterialistic,” said Dinges. “If you see your body as a prison and matter as bad, it’s ‘I’m outta here.’ “

Nancy Ammerman, a professor of the sociology of religion at Hartford Seminary in Hartford, Conn., said the group, with its interest in the Hale-Bopp comet, sounds like it believes the universe has free-floating energy.

“Possibly when you focus on those disembodied sources of energy, the mortal flesh becomes a hindrance,” she said. “They begin to see their bodies as standing between them and these higher sources of power.”

Van Zandt said he is not surprised that the group left a videotape “to educate the uneducated masses.”

“Now, if, in fact, it has anything to do with the comet or UFOs,” he said, “all of society will step out in their back yards and wonder about those 39 souls tailing the comet.”

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