Michael Santella’s memorial celebrates his life

By Taylor Provost

On Apr. 12, Michael Santella, 18, was able to have a memorial service in celebration of his life – an event previously unimaginable to his mother, Beth Kirkman – thanks to months of support that his family received from the community and across the globe.

Michael passed away at 8:24 a.m., Apr. 1. His visitation was Apr. 11, 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. at Clancy-Gernon Funeral Home in Bourbonnais, where his funeral service was held the following day at 1 p.m.

Friends and family release balloons for Michael outside of Clancy-Gernon Funeral Home in Bourbonnais, just one of many sites where balloons were released. Photo by Taylor Provost.
Friends and family release balloons for Michael outside of Clancy-Gernon Funeral Home in Bourbonnais, just one of many sites where balloons were released. Photo by Taylor Provost.

While Beth and family have been mentally preparing for this event since August when they found out Michael was to be put on to hospice care due to the severity of his lung failure, they were not certain how to prepare for the cost of an adequate memorial service. Michael had been denied life insurance due to his Down syndrome, and Beth had no funds to put towards a service.

However, after setting up a donation page for Michael’s service costs on youcaring.com, a website that allows you to virtually collect donations from around the world, Beth was shocked by the support she received. The page received worldwide attention and donations, and within a little over a week of sharing the page on Facebook, Beth’s goal of $12,000 was met, and exceeded shortly after – something Beth did not expect when creating the page.

Community support did not end for Michael or his family after Beth’s goal dollar amount was met, though. Posts of encouragement and sympathy from Facebook friends flooded Beth’s Facebook page daily, where hundreds of community members followed, liked and shared Beth’s regular posts about Michael in the recent months.

“It just keeps growing and growing,” Beth said in response to the support.

In addition to the support the family received through Facebook, community members ranging from close friends to nearly strangers appeared at Michael’s visitation to honor his life. Two hours before the visitation even officially started, the entire Bradley Bourbonnais Community High School baseball team came to the visitation to pay their respects to Michael and family before going to their game. Also attending early, BBCHS’ special needs program, Best Buddies, came as a group to visit the family.

The following day, as Michael’s service began, friends and family took turns speaking about Michael, sharing memories and stories that brought tears and laughs to the crowd.

Margie Hamilton, Michael’s teacher and family friend, called defining Michael similar to “defining air.”

She smiled as she talked about Michael’s “feel good” song that he used to sing in painful times – “Life’s a Happy Song,” by The Muppets.

“Everything is great, everything is grand; I got the whole wide world in the palm of my hand. Everything is perfect; it’s falling into place. I can’t seem to wipe this smile off my face. Life’s a happy song, when there’s some- one by my side to sing along,” she said, reciting the lyrics.

Clancy-Gernon in Bourbonnais was not the only area celebrating Michael’s life on Apr. 12.

Although some family was able to fly in from the East and West coasts, not everyone who wanted to celebrate Michael’s life could attend his services. Instead, people around the world chose to participate in an orange (Michael’s favorite color) balloon-release at the same time as his funeral service. Friends, family, and strangers in areas including Connecticut, New Hampshire, Arizona, Texas, Tennessee, England, Ireland, Florida, Chicago, Minnesota, Washington, Oregon and Hawaii took part, to name a few. Funeral attendees in Bourbonnais were also given orange balloons on their way out of the service, which were then released on the count of three just outside the doors of the funeral home.

A burial was not held after the service, as the family chose cremation. The majority of his ashes are placed in an urn custom-made by local artist and musician, Jay Jackson, with a Wizard of Oz scene painted on it – a tribute to Michael’s favorite movie. But Beth plans on revisiting a secluded Oregon beach near Portland area, where all her children were born, this summer to spread some of Michael’s ashes. His grandmother’s ashes were also scattered there.

A dinner was held following the service at The Knights of Columbus in Kankakee, where food donated from multiple local restaurants was served to those who attended the funeral.

“Michael is a presence that is timeless. He’s in the rain as it refreshes my flowers. Michael’s in the rays of the sun as it warms my face,” Hamilton said. “Michael will never be far from my soul.”

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