It is always so much easier to deal with numbers. They don't die and rot so you have to wear gauze over your face and peel skin off fingers to get the prints to tell who they are.

It is comfortable to think about people as numbers when you don't really want to think about them. In World War I they spoke of "wastage." During World War II, for 6 million Jews, it was the Final Solution.

You can say "6 million" and not feel a thing. You can say "911" and study the photographs of the bodies piled up at Jonestown, and it is a horror, all right, but an abstract horror.

How do you find a human scale for the Jonestown tragedy?

The story of these varied and scattered lives and how they ended in that steamy compound at Jonestown compels many of us to seek out parallels, references, some anchor that will make it seem more real to us. Some people speak of the bridge of San Luis Rey. Some start talking about an appointment in Samarra. It doesn't help. We are still left with all those converging fates, those lives so neatly wound up at the same time and place. The impossible mystery of why things happen anyway.

The Peoples Temple is a broad beige brick building in a poor-looking part of the Fillmore district, in effect San Francisco's black ghetto. A fast-food place stands on one side and an auditorium on the other. At night, police cars park outside the Temple, and a floodlight turns the adjacent alley dead white.

Behind, in the big parking lot, stand several large buses and many cars. It looks like the backyard of any busy church that goes in for trips and picnics and outings.

The only thing wrong is that many of the cars are so thick with dust you can hardly tell what color they are.

"I believe this happened for a reason. They were chosen for this. It was meant as a warning to the whole world."

Nathaniel Alexander is 33. He and his brothers Steven and Robert own a plumbing business in Oakland. But Bobby isn't here at the moment because he has gone east to try and identify the bodies. There are six.

There is the grandmother, Mary Cottingham, 83. Their mother, Florence Heath, 53. Their uncle Grover Washington, 50. Their sister Mary Morton, 37, and her daughter Vicki, 10. And their 14-year-old brother Michael Heath.

Nate Alexander used to argue with his mother about the Temple. He went a couple of times himself, "to see what she was getting into"; but it didn't seem like a church to him. The first time he went, people wanted to know his address and other things about him. That wasn't so bad, but the second time there were red-hatted guards and Jim Jones, the man his mother thought so much of, was "preaching evil things, scaring people."

"At first the changes in her were good," he said. "She was active and happy, and I was glad to see her getting out and around. It gave her something to do. She was getting through a divorce at the time. It was '72."

Even though it meant commuting nearly 50 miles from Pittsburg, far on the other side of Oakland, Florence Heath still made the Peoples Temple the center of her life.

She was one of those who cooked for the others there; she drove people who needed rides; she visited the sick; she went on the Temple's famously uncomfortable bus trips to Los Angeles and other cities. Things were done for her too: medical attention, instructions about diet and healthy living.

"Nate," she would say, "I've been in churches all my days, and nobody's done anything like this man has done."

She said Jim Jones was her God. "At least I have a God I can see," she would say, and when her son brought out the Bible to dispute her, she would say the Bible was just a white man's tool.

"We talked about it every time she came over," Alexander said. "I told her Jones was a devil, and even though he was white he was telling them all this stuff about black genocide, things he thought they wanted to hear. Finally we agreed to stop arguing because she was afraid Jones would retaliate."

Florence Heath believed Jones could literally hear what they said there in Alexander's downtown Oakland apartment. And his sister Mary claimed Jones had cured her of cancer.

(Alexander's aunt Essie Mae Flynn had no such luck. Her sister brought her down from Pittsburg, where she still lives in a country housing project, to be treated by Jones for her bad heart, epilepsy, asthma and a nervous condition. She got so sick that she had to be put to bed upstairs at the Temple. Later she went on a trip to Los Angeles with the group and was taken desperately ill, spending three weeks in a hospital. Essie Flynn, 49, never went back to the Temple. It wasn't a church, she said, wasn't truly ordained, so she and her sister and mother drew apart, though they remained on friendly terms.)

Florence Heath was born in Florence County, but soon moved to Queens, N.Y., to a house behind Kennedy Airport. Her husband was a construction worker.

She divorced him and married Alexander's father, a master sergeant in the Army, and for some years the family moved around the country: Takoma, Wash.; Seaside, Calif.; Georgia; South Carolina. Twenty years ago they moved to Pittsburg.

Her brother, Timothy Washington, told reporters he believed she had sold the Pittsburg house for $25,000, giving half to her husband and half to Jim Jones, along with her car; but Nate Alexander says he knows nothing of all this and doesn't care to speculate about it.

In any case, she did sell the house and came to San Francisco. Alexander thought she would buy a place here, but instead she simply lived at the Temple, and then suddenly was off for Guyana.

"She was a very helpful person," he said. "She was always concerned for her relatives and family and involved in other people. She was a housewife most of her life, but she did start some kind of nursing program to learn to take care of patients. She made some income from that, and then there was the alimony."

He got his last letter from her in March. Like all the others and like the letters from his sister, it was full of happiness. She wrote about the good fresh food they had at Jonestown, and how they had doctors and dentists and no crime.

Even Grover, whom she had brought along because he needed someone to care for him, had learned to work and for the first time in his life to do something for himself, she wrote to another family member.

Nate Alexander didn't want his mother's last letter quoted. "I'd like to keep that private," he said. Most of the family snapshots have been taken to the State Department to help with identification, but he did have one small picture of Vicki Morton when she was even younger than her 10 years. He didn't want to part with that, either.

"It was a sign of the times, this thing. People are confused and perplexed, and the morality, the economic system, are deteriorating. The monetary system is breaking down. Everything is corrupt."

"You can't get wrapped up in an individual like Jones. You have to listen to what's being said. I can see his appeal -- they've been hearing stuff all their lives and nothing happens, and then he comes along and he produces, he gets action. That town wasn't just some dream, it was really there. But you've got to be aware of what's happening, and not put your faith in a man. Those you thought might do something for you turn out to be just as corrupt as the rest. You're on your own, and you have to realize that."

-- M.K.