A wreath encloses a photograph of Jelani Day near his casket at services held Saturday at Danville High School in Danville. | John Fountain/Sun-Times
“The journey does not stop here,” his mother Carmen Bolden Day said. “I’m only getting ready to lay Jelani to rest. But I can’t rest because I don’t know what happened to him.”
Jelani Day returned home Saturday a radiant, good and honorable native son.
His remains lay in a closed mahogany-colored casket, highlighted in bronze and topped with a spray of white flowers that was flanked by a multicolored assortment of dozens of roses and other floral arrangements that shone as vibrantly as the life that friends and family say he lived — before it was unjustly cut short.
But it was unquestionably a celebration of the life of the 25-year-old Illinois State University graduate student, whose body was found Sept. 4, floating in the Illinois River in Peru, despite the mystery and questions surrounding his disappearance and death.
The more than three-and-a-half-hour afternoon service, which began at noon and was held at downstate Danville High School, flowed with tears and with music, with prayers and praise. There were also messages of faith and hope.
Mourners gather outside Danville High School Saturday as Jelani Day’s casket is led to waiting pallbearers in Danville.
Perhaps no message rang more loudly than the declaration that it ain’t over. Not his legacy or light. Not the demand for justice for Jelani Day.
“The journey does not stop here,” his mother Carmen Bolden Day told mourners. “I’m only getting ready to lay Jelani to rest. But I can’t rest because I don’t know what happened to him.
“Whoever you are, I want you to know, your time will come,” the mother continued as the crowd rang out in support. “Jelani did not deserve this.”
Throughout the service, there were expressions of love and of gratitude for having been touched by a light called Jelani. Among them was childhood friend Paul DeArmond, 26, who spoke of their ties since kindergarten, of their fondness and love for each other and of how Jelani’s desire to become a speech pathologist was birthed by his desire to help him.
The service began as a preacher declared from the podium, “The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear?”
The choir, dressed in black, some holding red roses, sang “Praise Him, Praise, Him… Jesus, blessed savior, is worthy to be praised.” The drummer beat slowly, the melodic keys of a piano drifting toward heaven, filling this high school auditorium turned sanctuary.
Jelani’s family filed in, walking down the center aisle as hundreds of mourners stood, the crowd stretching even to the balcony, some wiping away tears, others trying to fight them back.
Soon, the song, “Jesus Loves Me,” spilled from the auditorium’s speakers as young people lined up to present red roses, one by one, to Jelani’s mother and the immediate family.
The choir sang: “The best is yet to come,” their joyful noise seeking to lift the spirits of those who gathered here and who grappled with a sense of not only sorrow, but disbelief and horror over Jelani’s death.
“We’re praying for their strength,” the program moderator said. “We’re praying for their strength.”
There were prayers for healing. Prayers for strength. Prayers for answers. Prayers for justice.
And there were reassurances that, “Weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning.”
Paul DeArmond, 26, Jelani Day’s childhood friend, speaks at his service Saturday at Danville High School in Danville.
There were hands. Hands lifted in praise. Hands outstretched for divine strength. Hands for tissues to wipe away a flood of tears. And hands rested upon shoulders in comfort for this abrupt farewell amid the echoing question: “What happened to Jelani Day?”
There was also wailing — the unbearable audible release of sorrow too heavy to hold — that rose intermittently amid this grief-stricken assembly.
And yet, there was also celebration. In the old-time church way. The evoking of “Hallelujahs” and “Glorys” that have long soothed the souls of Black folk, even amid the endurance of unspeakable horrors, and which stirred the crowd, even if momentarily.
And there were remembrances: Of Jelani as a church boy, singing in the choir. Of his laughter. Of growing up.
And on today, there was the blessed assurance, one speaker told mourners, that Jelani “now has exchanged his white coat for a white robe.”
And there was a promise, a vow, to seek answers and justice for Jelani Day.