One day the previously dead start returning, not as zombies, but exactly as they were when they died. One returnee is 8-year-old Jacob Hargrave, who drowned 30 years before. He shows up in China, and after being processed by the 'Bureau of the Returned' is brought back to his now elderly parents - Lucille and Harold - in Arcadia, Missouri. Though a bit befuddled, the Hargraves take in Jacob and care for him. Another local family, the Collins', all of whom were murdered, also returns to Arcadia and takes up residence in the church.
Some townsfolk support the returnees but many are frightened, hostile, and want them gone. Moreover, when the initial trickle of returnees becomes a flood the American government turns Arcadia into a holding site and starts busing in masses of returnees. This type of situation is mirrored all over the world as more and more undead show up. The holding camps are okay at first but soon become overcrowded, dirty, and foul-smelling.
The local clergyman in Arcadia, Pastor Philips, encourages patience but 'the real living' want to know what's going on, and they want to know now! Unfortunately, no explanation is forthcoming. The situation soon spirals out of control with dire consequences.
The book is at least partially a treatise on how people deal with death - can they mourn the dead and move on? can they accept returned loved ones? returned strangers? a world where there may be no death? I thought the story had intriguing characters and it kept me interested. I was anxious to see what happened next and to find out how the returnee phenomenon was explained. In that I was disappointed because the phenomenon was not explained at all. Thus, though I enjoyed the story, I was left with a feeling of dissatisfaction (though I expect there will be a sequel to the book).
There is now a TV series based on this book (called Resurrection).