Journalist of the Year Portfolio

People still care

Peoplestillcare

He only remembers the goosebump moments.

He remembers helping officer Lorne Ahrens’ 8-year-old son off the horse-drawn coach when his father’s casket arrived at the grave. 

He remembers how officer Michael Krol’s family flew in from Detroit and stood over the men who died with Krol.

He remembers officer Michael Smith’s daughters standing over their dad’s casket — and him, choking back tears as he thought about his own daughters’ ages.

And the Friday morning following the shootings, Restland Funeral Home general manager Mike Day remembers what he had told his wife before going to work.

Babe, I don’t know what time I’ll be home. I really don’t. So y’all just make plans to do whatever you want to do.

But besides moments like these, the whole week is a blur.

Because by the time he came home that Friday, he was overseeing the funeral operation for three of the five officers killed in July’s shootings.

“On top of that we still had 46 other families that lost their mother, their dad, or their son,” he said. “And their services were just as important as the three [officers] that we were going to be taking care of.”

The Restland management team met three times a day to talk about the day’s events. 6:30 a.m. 2 p.m. 6 p.m. Then back home.

Day was mentally exhausted.

He doesn’t normally like to talk about work when he gets home. Maybe that’s a bad thing. He’s not really sure. 

But this time was different.

“I’ll go back and I did talk to my wife,” he said. “It’s very hard to sit there and watch the little girl tell her dad bye, knowing that she’s never going to see him again. Talking about stuff like that — you have to decompress every now and then. Because it can take a toll on you if you let it.”

But Day has been in the industry since the age of 19. He went to college for this stuff. And even without that, you can see his whole life has been surrounded by…well… death. 

His dad died when he was three. After his nephew committed suicide, he was the one who went out to get him. And his grandmother died when he was in the seventh grade.

“I’m pretty fortunate,” he said. “I knew what I wanted to do [for a living] when I was very young. I was in seventh grade, when for some reason I can’t answer why, I wanted to work in a funeral home… When my grandmother passed away, I attended the funeral. And, I was curious. I had seen at an early age how someone could take care of someone who had just lost the love of their life, and I wanted to be the one that could help someone. I wanted to be the one that could guide people.”

At 46, Day has almost 30 years of experience in the industry. He’s had crazy weeks like this one before. Crazy weeks that made him miss his kids’ school events. Miss their games. Miss Thanksgiving day. Even Christmas morning. 

“I’ve had to miss that early morning Christmas thing because I was at someone else’s house taking care of their loved one that just passed away,” Day said. “But I would hope that [my family] would recognize that I do have a passion, and I do care for not only everything here, but everybody I work with.”

The week surrounding the shootings was one of those crazy weeks.

Restland was caring for 49 families at the same time, and the officers’ funerals were some of the biggest Day’s ever seen. But because he has years of experience, he was able to kick into autopilot that week. That’s why it’s all a blur. That’s why only the goosebump memories stick with him today.

Countless police motorcycle escorts drive in front of him.

“Just pay attention to what’s in front of you,” he thinks. 

He doesn’t turn on the radio. He has to stay focused. 

But in front of him, lining the highway’s overpasses for miles, he sees what he calls, “respect.”

People stand with their hats off. Their hands rest on their hearts. They wave flags over the edge.

We’re sorry. We support the blue. “If I live to be 103, I’ll tell that to my grandchildren,” he said.

“Unfortunately, it takes a tragic event like [the shootings] to really bring the community together,” Day said. “But when it does happen that’s when you really see it. In and amongst all the crazy stuff that we experience in life, there truly are great communities out there that do come together.”

Mike day.jpg

Being involved in the officers’ funerals was an honor for Day. 

People have sent Day pictures of him escorting the casket to the hearse in a sea of blue — nothing but officers around him.

And he keeps those pictures. He cherishes them.

“Because I was fortunate enough,” Day said. “It’s not about being front and center of the media. I totally tune all of that out. But, I was the one that was fortunate enough to pay respect and to take care of three gentleman that died protecting us.”

But even to this day, Day thinks back to that crazy week and thinks about how Restland could’ve made the funeral experience even better for those three families.

“It’s hard to make an experience like that good, however, the whole thing in funeral service — there ain’t no do-overs,” he said. “...We don’t have that opportunity. We don’t have that amenity. So naturally, yeah, I think back.”

Day’s job isn’t for everybody. He says it’s a calling, and the people who don’t belong in the industry get weeded out. And he admits his job can be sad at times. After all, each day at the office is surrounded by death.

But Day has a passion for what he does. He says it’s not a job — it’s an opportunity to help people. And his reward comes in the form of handshakes and hugs.

“Let me tell you — there is nothing more rewarding in our industry than to have an adult man hug you crying, saying, ‘you just don’t know how much it helped us,’” he said. “You can’t put a dollar on that reward.”

Two of the officers killed in the shootings now lie in Restland’s cemetery.

There’s a closed off area dedicated exclusively to officers and firefighters who died in duty. In the center, a just-over-20-foot statue shows an angel holding a police officer in one hand and firefighter in the other — taking each to heaven.

At the base of the statue, cast iron police and firefighter uniforms lie wrinkled on hooks, as if these men are done with work for the day and are ready to go home. Just a couple of feet next to the statue, you can hear the trickle of water coming from a fountain in the middle of a small lake.

Other than that it’s silent. 

One of the officers in this area was Day’s friend’s nephew. And one of the firefighters was a friend Day grew up with — and he used to hunt with his dad all the time.

Day says his life is at Restland, and you can see it’s true by how quickly he tells you the backstories of everyone in this closed off area. 

“It puts it in a different perspective,” Day said. “You are standing here listening to the water. It’s very quiet. And just knowing that each one of these gentlemen here died protecting us.”

And even three months after the shootings, the two officers’ graves are still covered in fresh flowers, stuffed animals, and notes of appreciation.

That same respect Day saw on the highway’s overpasses is still present. 

For Day or anyone else standing in the middle of the area, it’s obvious that people still care.