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Missing in Action: Punchbowl Ponderings on the Resurrection


On a recent Sunday morning before church, my wife and I took our grandchildren to the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific—the Punchbowl. We felt that this would be a place where they could feel the Spirit and where we could talk about sacred things.

I like to visit cemeteries. It stirs solemn thoughtfulness, as Joseph Addison said of walking among the dead buried in Westminster Abbey. And none more than a cemetery like the Punchbowl, dedicated to war veterans and their families. We felt a sense of solemnity as we looked out across more than 50,000 graves and read the eloquent tribute by Abraham Lincoln inscribed on the statue of Lady Columbia to those who “laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom.”

But what we most wanted our grandchildren to see was a single name engraved in the Courts of the Missing. On these massive marble slab walls that flank the central stone staircase are written name after name of those who never came home, not even in a box. These are the Missing in Action, the MIAs.

We took our family to the court memorializing the Air Force MIAs from World War II. There we found the name of Charles Cannon Winder, Jr., a first cousin of Susan’s father, Richard Winder. “Chick,” as he was called, grew up on a dairy farm with his brother Pete and his cousins Ned and Rich Winder. The four did everything together, including go off to war.

But unlike the others, Chick never came home. Moreover, his family never knew how, or even if, he had died in the war. They just knew that Chick was missing in action. Finally, they had to accept this temporary classification as his permanent status.

The loved ones of MIAs experience a peculiarly poignant kind of grief. For them, there are no remains to mourn over. Their pain resembles that of Mary at the empty tomb, who cries, “They have taken away the Lord . . . and we know not where they have laid him” (John 20:2).

What is worse, there is no definitive moment of closure for the loved ones of MIAs. The uncertainty never allows family and friends to grieve properly. Moreover, to grieve can seem like a betrayal; it is to give up hope. The Winder family long hoped that Chick might come home and wondered if every knock on the door might be his. But, of course, it never was.

Chick was probably shot down over the Pacific, though no one knew if or how. There was no buddy to tell how he died, no battle site to visit, and no body to bury. Chick’s body remains lost somewhere in the vast Pacific. And no one knows where fate has laid him.

No one, that is, but God. On the base of the staircase to the Courts of the Missing are engraved these moving words:

IN THESE GARDENS ARE RECORDED
THE NAMES OF AMERICANS
WHO GAVE THEIR LIVES
IN THE SERVICE OF THEIR COUNTRY
AND WHOSE EARTHLY RESTING PLACE
IS KNOWN ONLY TO GOD

As I read these words, I thought about all those whose earthly resting place is known only to God, including my dear brother-in-law Jim, who was swept out to sea by a rogue wave and whose body was never recovered.

This was so difficult for the family. Yet we knew that although Jim’s body was missing, Jim, like Chick, was not lost to God. Someday the sea will give up the dead who are in it (Rev. 20:13). Then those lost at sea shall be found.

As John Donne said in an Easter sermon preached when English sailors were learning to circumnavigate the world, it matters not if a man loses “an arm in the East and a leg in the West,” for in the Resurrection “the same body, and the same soul, shall be recompact again” (John Donne: Selected Prose, pp. 166-67).

Or as the Book of Mormon testifies, “The spirit and the body shall be reunited again in its perfect form; both limb and joint shall be restored to its proper frame” (Alma 11:43).

At the Punchbowl, we spoke reverently about the Resurrection. A few hours later, we partook of the sacrament. As I ate the bread in remembrance of Jesus’s body, I recalled that his body was missing from the garden tomb. And that’s the point! “He is not here, but is risen” (Luke 24:6). His body’s absence from an earthly grave bears witnesses that he lives.

As shall every person who ever lived—including those interred in the Punchbowl and the nearly 30,000 MIAs who are memorialized there. One day every tomb shall be as empty as was Jesus’s sepulcher on Easter morning, and every MIA shall be found. Truly “in that great gettin’ up morning” no one shall be missing, neither to God nor to their loved ones. Oh, it is wonderful, wonderful to me!

John Tanner

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