Here's What Happened To The Bodies Of These Cult Leaders

Despite their promises of enlightenment, cults don't tend to have happy endings. However, they do frequently fulfill their leaders' messages of impending doom and death, often thanks to actions taken by those leaders. 

Even if the people at the head of the cult are never dragged before a court, at some point they die (no matter what they claimed about being the messiah) and someone has to decide what to do with them. Or, in some cases, multiple someones get into heated battles over who gets to control the fate of their body. 

Many cult leaders end up burnt down to ashes, scattered somewhere that doesn't allow the possibility of future followers building a shrine, and potentially reigniting the carnage they wrought. Some have already been forgotten, allowing them a perhaps unreasonable level of privacy when they meet their end. At least two received grand memorial services, attended by thousands of devoted followers. Cult leaders have died in prisons, care homes and mansions; alone and surrounded by followers; hated and revered. Here's what happened to the remains of some of the most prolific cult leaders of all time.

This article includes references to suicide, cult indoctrination, and child abuse.

Charles Manson's grandson fought to claim his body

Even if you don't know the full untold truth of Charles Manson, you've almost definitely heard of him. In the late 1960s, he formed a cult that came to be called the Manson Family, to whom he preached racist and misogynist ideologies.

As Vox reports, it's suspected that members of the Family committed several murders before and after their most infamous ones, which started on August 9, 1969. Manson sent four of his followers to a Beverly Hills house where actress Sharon Tate was staying. They brutally murdered the heavily pregnant Tate, her three friends Wojciech Frykowski, Abigail Folger, and Jay Sebring, and Steven Parent, who had been visiting the caretaker. The following night, Manson and three other Family members murdered wealthy couple Rosemary and Leno LaBianca in their home in Los Feliz.

Manson and four Family members were ultimately sentenced to life in prison. (Linda Kasabian, who went to Tate's house, received immunity in return for her testimony.) After four decades in prison and 12 denied parole requests, Manson died of natural causes on November 19, 2017, a week after turning 83. A multi-party legal dispute over his body broke out immediately, with a judge eventually granting his grandson Jason Freeman the right to claim it. According to Freeman's lawyer, he planned to cremate Manson and scatter the ashes over a body of water, presumably to prevent anyone building a shrine.

The followers of Jim Jones were buried in a mass grave — but he wasn't

When Jim Jones started his infamous cult, the Peoples Temple, in 1956, its integrationist politics were considered progressive. But by 1977, Jones' motivations had become increasingly self-serving. Paranoid about outside interference, that year he and around 1,000 followers relocated to a remote settlement in Guyana that they named Jonestown. On November 18, 1978, after members of the Temple shot and killed several visiting investigators, Jones ordered his followers to poison themselves, starting with the children. Anyone who ran or refused was shot, or possibly injected with poison, according to Rolling Stone. In total, 918 people died, including five investigators and four in a different Peoples Temple location: approximately 300 were children. 

Guyana refused to bury the bodies on the site, so the U.S. military undertook a massive operation to transport them to Delaware's Dover Air Force Base. For various reasons, 410 of the bodies were never claimed. Ultimately, Buck Kamphausen offered to bury the unclaimed dead in his cemetery, Evergreen Cemetery, in Oakland, CA. Five more victims were buried there in 2014, after their remains were discovered in an abandoned Delaware mortuary.

Jones did not share the same fate as his followers, in death or burial. He died at Jonestown from a bullet wound, and was cremated in New Jersey. His ashes were scattered over the Atlantic Ocean. When Evergreen dedicated several plaques listing all the names of the Jonestown victims in 2011, they controversially included Jones.

Bonnie Nettles didn't make it to Heaven's Gate

One half of the duo that founded astrology apocalypse suicide cult Heaven's Gate, Bonnie Nettles didn't live to see (or take part in) the tragic event the group is now most famous for.

Born in Houston, TX, in 1927, Nettles was raised as a Baptist but developed an interest in Tarot cards, astrology, fortune telling, reincarnation, and karma. She also believed that she could talk to the dead through seances: in particular, that she could communicate with a 19th-century monk she called Brother Francis. Dissatisfied with her marriage and at odds with the people around her, Nettles found a platonic spiritual connection with her son's drama teacher, Marshall Applewhite, in 1972. (The New York Times points out that Applewhite claimed that they met by chance in a hospital.) The following year, the Two, as they called themselves, began traveling the country, gradually recruiting new members to their nascent religion. Nettles and Applewhite connected themselves to prophecies in the Book of Revelation, mixing in references to other spiritual beliefs. Their followers were told that they must mentally and physically prepare to abandon their Earthly existence, so they could be ready and worthy for the time — which was coming soon-ish — when a U.F.O. would beam them up to heaven.

Nettles didn't live to see the climactic moment of the cult she started. Having lost an eye to cancer in 1983, in 1985, she died from liver cancer. Her ashes were scattered over White Rock Lake in Dallas, TX.

Marshall Applewhite's son planned to bury him in a family plot

Like most cults, Heaven's Gate's Marshall Applewhite and Bonnie Nettles controlled their followers through restrictions. These were supposed to help them disassociate from their Earthly selves so they could be inducted into space heaven — the "Next Level" — by U.F.O. According to the New York Times, followers were told to surrender Earthly desires: no sex or drugs, only certain foods, and no belongings not shared by the group. Everyone was given six minutes and one gallon of water to wash. Even the diameters of pancakes were standardized. Despite this control, after Nettles' death in 1985, Applewhite struggled to lead Heaven's Gate alone. He felt pressure to come up with the promised ascension to the Next Level.

In 1995, astronomers announced the discovery of the comet Hale-Bopp. The Heaven's Gate members decided that the U.F.O. that would collect them was following the comet — and planned to send themselves to meet it. Over three days in March 1997, when the comet passed closest to Earth, the cult members filmed goodbye messages, dressed in black with black-and-white Nike Decades sneakers, and took their own lives. Applewhite died in the third group, one of 39 people total.

On March 29, three days after the bodies were discovered, SFGate reported that Applewhite's sister planned to bury him next to their father in San Antonio, TX. However, Find a Grave reports that his ashes were scattered.

David Koresh's grave was originally unmarked

The messed up truth of David Koresh includes a dysfunctional childhood, religious fanaticism, rockstar aspirations, manipulative tactics, child abuse, and a stand-off with the FBI. In 1990-ish, Koresh took over a Christian sect called the Branch Davidians. He preached of an imminent apocalypse, and the cult started stockpiling weapons and running military drills, aiming to become a so-called Army of God. At the same time, Koresh ordered that all the other men be celibate, while he chose wives (including very young girls) from the women. He also controlled where and when everyone slept, and limited access to food.

On February 28, 1993, the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) conducted a disastrous raid on the Davidians' compound outside of Waco, TX, which killed six cult members and four officers, and led to a stand-off with the survivors. On April 19, a fire destroyed the compound, apparently started from the inside.

Fifty bodies were recovered: 17 had been shot, including at least four children. According to the LA Times, on May 2, authorities confirmed that Koresh's body was among them. They reported that he had likely died from a gunshot wound, not from the fire, although it's not clear who inflicted it. A month later, Koresh was buried in Memorial Park Cemetery in Tyler, TX, at a private funeral. Originally the grave was unmarked, but as TIME reported in 2013, at some point a small marker was added.

Being dead didn't stop Ervil LeBaron from inflicting violence

Ervil LeBaron (pictured far left) operated more like a mob boss than a cult leader. He was infamous for ordering the murders of anyone who opposed him, and the terror didn't end when he died. 

Ervil's father and three of his brothers led their own polygamist cults, based on Mormonism. According to the BBC, Ervil initially followed his brother Joel: but when the pair fell out in 1970, he started his own cult, the Church of the Lamb of God. And he's suspected of having Joel murdered two years later. Presenting himself as God's representative on Earth, Ervil believed that God told him to marry many wives (13), have many children (at least 50), and kill anyone who threatened to leave, or challenged his leadership (potentially 25 to 30.)

In 1980, Ervil was convicted in Utah for the murder of Dr. Rulon Allred, who led a different polygamist cult. He died the following year in his cell, aged 56, the New York Times reports. His body was claimed by one of his wives, Anna Mae Marston, who planned to hold a funeral in Houston, TX: according to Find a Grave, Ervil is buried in Houston's Earthman Resthaven Cemetery.

But murders and disappearances apparently connected to his cult continued. Most notoriously, in 1988, three former followers and one of their eight-year-old daughters were all executed simultaneously. Nine years later, five members of the cult were convicted of the murders, the BBC reports.

Scientology's L. Ron Hubbard was scattered at sea

Scientology was founded by writer L. Ron Hubbard in 1954, based on a pseudopsychology book he'd written four years previously. The general gist is that humans are essentially immortal beings called thetans. As we go from life to life, the stress and trauma we experience builds up to form what Scientologists call engrams. They believe that it's only through an expensive and extensive process called auditing that we can address these emotional scars and become what Scientologists call "clear" — basically enlightened.

Medical professionals, trained psychologists and anti-cults activists started speaking out against Hubbard and Scientology early on. In the 1960s, Scientology was banned in Australia after an investigation deemed it "a serious threat to the community, medically, morally, and socially." Former members have since accused the organization of forced labor, child abuse, and human trafficking, among other things.

In 1966, to avoid these legal threats, Hubbard moved his operations to a boat. After 1980, Hubbard disappeared from the public eye. On January 24, 1986, representatives of the organization reported his death to authorities in San Luis Obispo County, CA. According to Hubbard's Scientologist doctor, he'd died of a stroke. Hubbard had left a request that his body not be autopsied, so despite the mysterious circumstances, the coroner wasn't able to do a thorough assessment of the body. The New York Times reported that the organization claimed to have scattered his ashes at sea.

Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh is still at home

The story of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh and his meditation cult spans the globe: but for Rajneesh, it started and ended in the commune in Pune, India, where he first built a following. Rajneesh founded his religion in 1970, attracting followers with meditations that involved screaming, laughing hysterically, dancing, fighting, and orgies. The Indian authorities weren't overjoyed about the sudden influx of promiscuous, red-robed foreigners who flocked to Pune to take part. In 1981, looking to expand but blocked from doing so in India, Rajneesh and 2,000 of his followers moved to Antelope, Oregon, which had a population of just 40, according to the Daily Beast.

Without going into the full strange history of Antelope, Oregon, suffice it to say that the locals were even less keen on the Rajneeshees than the Indian authorities. Especially once they'd built an enormous compound and started carrying out military drills. There was also evidence that Rajneesh's assistant/second-in-command, Ma Anand Sheela, organized a mass poisoning, and lured hundreds of homeless people to the town to help the cult win an election.

In 1985, the U.S. government deported Rajneesh over an immigration fraud scheme. He returned to Pune, where he revived the original commune. Rajneesh died in 1990, aged 58, and was cremated by his followers on a funeral pyre. His ashes are kept at the commune — since transformed into an expensive "meditation retreat" — underneath a marble plaque that reads: "Never Born, Never Died, Only Visited This Planet Earth."

David Berg was buried in Portugal where he was hiding from the law

David Berg failed to create a stir working as just another fire-and-brimstone evangelical Christian preacher. But when the 1960s ushered in an era ripe for outside-the-box ideas, he took the opportunity to launch his particular brand of Christian "love."

As leader of the cult he named Children of God, in addition to preaching about the usual imminent apocalypse, and racist and anti-Semitic ideologies, Berg argued that the best way to express God's love was through sex. Disturbingly, that thinking was applied to children as young as two, according to the BBC. Child abuse was rampant. In addition to the pedophilia, children were beaten and whipped. Berg also sent young female followers out to entice men to join the cult by having sex with them.

Despite these violent beliefs, the cult gained a worldwide following, claiming to have 10,000 members by 1970. But the following year, the accusations of forced sex work caught up to Berg, and he was forced into hiding. Rolling Stone reports that he died in 1994, aged 75, in a secret compound later determined to be in Portugal, and was buried in Costa da Caparica. According to Find a Grave, he has since been exhumed and cremated. By then, Children of God had rebranded to The Family International — apparently unconcerned with the Manson connotations.

If you or someone you know may be the victim of child abuse, please contact the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-4-A-Child (1-800-422-4453) or contact their live chat services.

Sun Myung Moon had an elaborate funeral

The Unification Church sees itself as a Christian sect, but it rejects a pretty important aspect of Christianity. The cult celebrates its founder Reverend Sun Myung Moon as the true messiah, not Jesus. Moon founded the cult in 1954 in Korea, after claiming Jesus had visited him in a vision in the 1930s, and told him to continue his work. Moon claimed that his mission was to unite every religion — hence Unification. The followers who joined became known as the Moonies, after the man they referred to as "Father."

The cult was most famous for its mass weddings, in which all the couples were set up by Moon. Members were told that anyone who wouldn't join was a force for evil who was trying to attack Moon, and to abandon their families. Followers lured prospective members to remote houses, where they were forced through a process of indoctrination. Former member Steven Hassan told the Guardian that anyone who couldn't raise $100 a day for the cult wasn't allowed to sleep. Moon also preached right-wing teachings, including anti-Semitism, and was supported by self-declared fascists.

The Moonies were most popular in the '70s and '80s, but Moon continued to rake in cash through various business interests after that. He was a billionaire when he died in 2012, aged 92, of pneumonia. According to CNN, 35,000 people attended his lavish funeral in South Korea, after which he was buried on Mount Cheonseong, the Moonies' holy site.

Shoko Asahara was executed for the Tokyo Sarin attack

One of the most dangerous attacks ever committed by a cult took place in Japan in 1995, when members of Aum Shinrikyo (meaning "supreme truth") used a nerve agent to poison thousands of subway commuters.

Founded in the 1980s by Shoko Asahara, the cult is often referred to as Aum. It combined cherry-picked teachings about meditation and yoga from Buddhism and Hinduism. Asahara later threw in some Christian doomsday prophecies and occult references too. Specifically, he taught that the apocalypse was imminent, in the form of a nuclear attack by the U.S., and only his followers would survive. By the late 1980s, Aum had gained a significant following in Japan and Russia, especially among university students, the BBC reports.

On March 20, 1995, Aum members left open bags of a powerful nerve agent called Sarin, which can be transmitted through the air, at five different stations on Japan's subway system. The poison killed 13 people and injured at least 5,800. The previous year, the cult had killed eight people and injured 100 more in a similar, smaller scale Sarin attack.

Asahara and six other Aum members were soon arrested, sentenced to death, and executed by hanging on July 6, 2018, in a Tokyo detention center. His ashes were held at the prison while various family members fought over who got to take ownership of them. In September 2020, a court awarded them to his second-oldest daughter.

Anne Hamilton-Byrne was buried near the site of her cult

In 1987, at least one survivor of a dangerous cult alerted Australian police to its secret location in remote countryside near Melbourne. Raiding the complex, police found 28 children, all with bleached blonde hair, dressed identically.

The woman in charge of the compound was Anne Hamilton-Byrne. She looked more like a 1950s housewife than a cult leader: but she had been accumulating followers and kidnapping children through fake adoption schemes since the '60s and '70s. She also persuaded single mothers to hand over their children to her as "gifts" to the cult, which she called (rather unoriginally) The Family. The spiel was along the usual cult line: bits of Eastern mythology, doomsday prophecies, racist ideologies, and herself as the female reincarnation of Jesus. She also claimed to be European royalty, according to the Guardian.

Hamilton-Byrne reportedly maintained control over the adults and children through an unpredictable blend of emotional manipulation and furious discipline. The children were beaten, starved, and drugged with hallucinogens, including LSD. But she escaped the police. She and her husband Bill were eventually tracked down and arrested in New York. They were never charged with child abuse. She was only ever convicted of minor fraud charges, and fined rather than sentenced to prison.

Hamilton-Byrne died, aged 97, in a nursing home in 2019. She was buried in St Paul's Catholic Church in Monbulk, on the outskirts of Melbourne, not far from where the cult had lived.