Wars are always a time of tragedy, because so many people die before their time as battles rage or bombs fall. Sometimes they pass away before they have had chance to start a family, sometimes they leave a young family behind. But the Grim Reaper doesn’t stop his everyday work during a war. People still die in the usual ways: of cancer and other diseases, in traffic accidents and drownings.
Those deaths can be just as painful to those left behind, but they don’t often add an additional burden to the family and friends: that the body of the loved one can’t be brought home for burial. Countless soldiers have gone “missing in action” down the centuries, leaving their family and friends with no funeral to attend and no grave to visit. In those cases, the family’s grieving may never end, because in all cultures it’s important to mark the death of a loved one with some ritual and have some memorial to remember them by.
But you don’t have to be a soldier to go missing during a war. It happened in Switzerland to a married couple called Marcelin and Francine Dumoulin right in the middle of the Second World War. On 15th August 1942, they went together to milk their cows in a mountain meadow. Probably no thought of harm ever crossed their minds as they climbed to their work. Switzerland was neutral and formed a haven of peace amid the carnage. No bombs fell there, no bullets were fired. But death and tragedy still visited Switzerland, as the seven young children of Marcelin and Francine were about to learn.
Something went very badly wrong for their parents that day and they never returned home. Searches must have been carried out along every inch of the route they had taken. The searchers must have called out the names of the missing couple, then fallen silent as they listened intently for a reply. But no reply ever came and no trace of Marcelin and Francine was ever found. They had vanished and in a few days it must have been clear that they were never coming back. They had been killed in a freak accident and the mountain had taken their bodies.
This meant that there was no funeral, no ritual of mourning and remembrance for their young children to attend. But their children never gave up searching and never gave up hope that one day the mountain would return what it had taken away. One day they would be able to bury their parents with the honour and dignity they deserved. That’s how important funerals are to us human beings. And the couple’s very youngest child, the baby daughter named Marceline after her father, began waiting and hoping when she was old enough to understand what happened.
And now in the year 2017, seventy-five years after her parents vanished on what seemed an ordinary August day, Marceline’s patience and hope have been rewarded. The mountain has returned what it took away: the bodies of her parents were discovered in a glacier, preserved by ice and cold all those decades. The old-fashioned clothing they wore made it obvious to those who found them that this was no recent tragedy and the identity cards they still carried enabled them to be named immediately.
But if one mystery was solved, another remained. The bodies had been found, but what had happened all those years ago? How were two healthy adults killed as they walked a route that Marcelin, at least, must have taken many times before? It’s impossible to say, but Francine Dumoulin was pregnant on that day and must have found the climb difficult. Perhaps she fell and her husband fell as he tried to help her. Or perhaps it was the other way around. Whatever it was, tragedy struck and seven children were left without a mother or father.
Some of them have passed away themselves in the three-quarters of a century since the loss of their parents, but baby Marceline, now aged seventy-five, spoke for them all when she said this to a Swiss newspaper: “We spent our whole lives looking for them, without stopping. We thought that we could give them the funeral they deserved one day.” She was right and she said that the news of her parents’ discovery had given her “a deep sense of calm”. That was why she would be making an unusual choice of clothing when she finally said goodbye to her parents: “For the funeral, I won’t wear black. I think that white would be more appropriate. It represents hope, which I never lost.”