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Danville community mourns as Jelani Day takes final journey at alma mater

Hundreds of mourners filed through the hallway of Danville High School, taking a journey filled with photos of the life of Jelani Day. Here, at his alma mater, the first floor leading to the auditorium was transformed into a memorial Jelani Lane, where numerous colorful photos, even a life-size poster cutout of Jelani in a white lab coat, showed evidence of a loved and cherished son, brother and friend.

There were pictures of Jelani, smiling with his mother. A picture of him holding his grandmother in a candid moment after graduation. A picture of Jelani and his four siblings, cheesing as small children during happier times.

Jelani Day’s mahogany brown casket stands in front of the stage at Danville High School, beside a wreath enclosed with a picture of him. (Photo by Samantha Latson)

On this day, they came on a somber occasion to bid farewell and to remember the 25-year-old found dead on the Illinois River early last month.

The service, dubbed a “Commemoration Of A Life Well Lived,” was held on Saturday, October 8, and lasted more than 3½ hours.

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A flier displays the date, time, and location of Jelani Day’s funeral services. (Photo credits: (Samantha Latson and John Fountain)

As the service began, the crowd stood, facing the center aisle as the family entered the auditorium and the choir sang, “Praise Him, Praise Him, Praise Him, Jesus, Blessed Savior…”

Amid grief and a palpable sense of heaviness, the mistress of ceremonies commanded mourners to give God praise, informing some and reminding others that Jelani loved church.

“It’s too quiet. We came here to have church,” she told them. “Jelani liked church, Jelani loved church. He loved hearing the choir sing.”

Her words were met with shouts of “glory” and “hallelujah,” igniting a spiritual fire as the organ played. Some rose to their feet, clapping their hands, and waving their arms, exalting, even in the midst of their pain.

A minister shouted, “Weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning. Though he slay me, yet will I trust,” she exclaimed.

Throughout the service, speakers cited scriptures in hopes of helping friends and family find strength amid their sorrow. There was praise and speaking in tongues, and sprinklings of a Pentecostal stirring experience.

Still, cries, at times, filled the room amid sorrow for the tragic loss of a life so young and questions and a mystery that still surround Jelani’s death.

Jelani’s mom, Carmen Bolden Day is embraced and consoled by one of Jelani’s fraternity brothers during the service. (Photo by Samantha Latson)

A graduate of Alabama A&M University and a graduate student at Illinois State University in Bloomington-Normal, studying speech pathology, he was reported missing on August 25. A day later, police found his car in a secluded wooded area in Peru, Illinois.

Nine days after that, on September 4, the authorities found a body two miles away from where Jelani’s car was discovered, floating face down in the Illinois River beneath the Illinois Route 251 Bridge. On September 23, the LaSalle County Coroner’s Office identified the body through dental records and DNA testing as Jelani Day—a month after he was first reported missing.

The cause of his death remains under investigation, according to the authorities. His mother, Carmen Bolden Day, has led the campaign to find justice for her son, and answers.

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Jelani Day’s siblings comfort each on stage during the service. (Photo by Samantha Latson)

Among those honoring Jelani at his services were his line brothers of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity Inc., who shared memories of him, then comforted Day, wrapping their arms around her, one by one.

While standing at the podium, a mother remembered her son’s spiritual values that she said anchored him even while away at school.

“The reason I wanted the choir and the songs they sang was because Jelani loved music. Jelani loved church and being at church,” Day told mourners. “Even when Jelani went away for school, he found a church.”

Throughout the service, Jelani’s impact on the lives of others was a constant theme. Among those testifying of his friendship and love was Paul DeArmond, 26, a childhood friend who had a speech impediment. DeArmond, who was apparently sometimes picked on by other kids, remembers Jelani as a friend and protector who was “always nice” to him. “Jelani told my parents he wanted to become a speech therapist because of me, to help people who had trouble talking,” DeArmond said, his words moving some mourners to tears.

Paul DeArmond embraces Carmen Bolden Day with his parents behind him. (Photo by Samantha Latson)

“Last Tuesday night, Jelani was in my dream,” DeArmond continued. “He was smiling at me and I looked up. Now I know he’s OK. I know Jelani is not here right now, but he will always be in my heart.”

Day, speaking about raising her son and four other children, said she taught him and Jelani’s siblings that a good name is better than riches. “I know people lie all the time at funerals, saying how good of a person they were,” she said. “But Jelani was exactly what everyone said he was. He was smart, he was intelligent, he was caring, kind. And he loved his family.”

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Jelani’s childhood friend, Paul DeArmond, 26, speaks during the funeral service. (Photo by Samantha Latson)

Among his family who shared fond memories were his two brothers and two sisters who stood together, speaking of their beloved brother in between laughter and tears. Jelani was the fourth of his parents’ five children and the youngest of three boys.

“I thank God for Jelani being in my life,” said his brother D’Andre Day. “One of the last times I talked to him was at the house. He said, ‘D’Andre, I’m so proud of you.’ He said he was proud that I went back to school, and that I was getting my master’s degree.”

And yet, while expounding on the pain of losing his little brother, D’Andre Day said he could not help but give thanks. “I’m so angry with Jelani, I’m so angry, because I don’t have one of my best friends anymore,” he said, his words rinsed with emotion. “But I send up an usher of praise and say, ‘thank you.’ I don’t even know why, but thank you, I say, ‘thank you’ for all the love that I see, and that was shown for my brother and family. I just have to say, ‘thank you.’”

Wailing, he shouted, “Glory, Glory, Glory!”

A woman holds Jelani Day’s obituary outside while watching funeral directors roll the casket toward the hearse. (Photos by Samantha Latson)

The service ended. Mourners filed into the school’s hallway past Jelani’s pictures. And two men dressed in black suits rolled Jelani’s mahogany-colored casket to waiting pallbearers and a hearse, into the afternoon sun.

Mourners gather outside after the funeral service as Jelani’s casket is carried by funeral directors to waiting pallbearers. (Photo by Samantha Latson)

Samantha Latson is a graduate journalism student at Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana and a freelance writer. Email: [email protected]


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