EVANS, Georgia — Darrelly Rivera van Dieren carried her baby boy to a dinosaur-embroidered blue casket where she rocked him and laid him down to rest one last time.
“You never know the value of a moment until it becomes a memory,” was the Dr. Seuss quote that appeared at the end of a video remembering the short but joyous life of Darrelly’s son, RJ Franken, who was taken from the world March 15 at 3 years old.
RJ’s life was celebrated Sunday in Evans, Georgia, with family, friends, teachers and even those who never experienced his smile and sweet spirit.
Although it wasn't his birth name, everyone who knew him knew him as RJ.
He was born in Aranjestad, Aruba, and grew up in Columbia County, Georgia. After Hurricane Michael destroyed their home at Tyndall Air Force Base, RJ's family moved to Bluewater Bay. Darrelly is now stationed at Eglin Air Force Base.
The family agreed to share photos and stories about RJ as long as the story focused on his life rather than his death.
The Daily News spoke with Amanda Lucas, the funeral director of Platts Funeral Home. Lucas never met RJ, but the family trusted her to talk about his life and the funeral service.
"He was a well-loved little boy," Lucas said.
Lucas said RJ loved smiling, dinosaurs, sugar cookies with sprinkles, Mickey Mouse, "Paw Patrol" and the color blue. She said just by looking at his photos and listening to memories of RJ, she knew he had an infectious smile and loving heart.
Several veterans stood in a line outside the funeral home holding flags as Darrelly hugged each of their necks. Darrelly said RJ absolutely loved the American flag.
As the service began, the Veggie Tales rendition of “Jesus Loves the Little Children” played as Darrelly walked behind RJ's casket with her family.
After the family was seated, the theme song for “Paw Patrol” played in memory of RJ’s love for his “Paw Patrol” pajamas.
The service ended with the congregation in a nearly-full chapel joining together to sing RJ’s favorite song: “Baby Shark.”
“Everyone was doing the hand motions and laughing and smiling, just truly honoring his memory,” Lucas said.
Darrelly thanked everyone for joining in the celebration of RJ’s life. Then outside, blue and white balloons with some with RJ’s favorite show characters from “Mickey Mouse” and “Paw Patrol” were released into the sky.
RJ was buried at the Georgia Veteran's Cemetery in Milledgeville, making him the first child other than stillborn babies to be buried there. RJ was laid to rest wearing a white shirt with little dinosaurs on it that his uncle bought him and an accessory item he never went without: his favorite hat.
Following the burial service, the family gathered for a catered meal from Chick-fil-A, RJ's favorite place to eat. For dessert, they enjoyed sprinkle-covered sugar cookies.
"Now as I sit here crying writing this, I think about how unfair life can be, but I also look back on how beautiful this weekend was," Courtney Garner, Darrelly's best friend, said in a Facebook post. "It was like nothing I’ve ever experienced."
As a funeral director, Lucas has attended many services and has met many grieving families. But this past weekend holds a special place in her heart, she said.
"(RJ) is the same size as my daughter," Lucas said. "I remember after I had handed RJ to his mom where she could rock him, that night my daughter crawled up in my lap and wanted me to rock her.
"You can't help but think about how blessed you are to have a child at home that's healthy and safe," she added. "This job certainly makes you realize not to take life for granted."