Amid the rumble of motorcycle engines and a release of helium-filled balloons, 5-year-old Nevaeh Buchanan made the final journey of her short life Saturday afternoon as her body was laid to rest nearly three weeks after she disappeared.

“It’s such a beautiful thing that everyone came together to remember a beautiful little girl,” said Jolyn Ball of Monroe, one of nearly 100 people – most of whom never met Nevaeh or her family – who lined the roadway by the entrance to the girl’s beloved Munson Park.

The glass-enclosed hearse carrying Nevaeh’s small white casket was pulled by a Harley-Davidson, a tribute to her love of motorcycles.

As the hearse slowed near the park entrance, the crowd released scores of colorful balloons.

Mrs. Ball explained to her own 3-year-old daughter, Lilly, that the balloons were for Nevaeh, whose name is heaven spelled backward: “The balloons are going to fly away so she can reach them. That’s why we’re letting them go.”

The procession followed a celebration of life service at Stewart Road Christian Ministries that drew several hundred people, including the girl’s mother, Jennifer Buchanan; grandmother, Sherry Buchanan, and father, Shane Hinojosa.

Open visiting hours on Thursday and Friday at the Merkle Funeral Home on North Monroe Street drew hundreds of visitors.

Public donations have covered the majority of the girl’s funeral costs, said Brian Merkle, funeral home manager.

Neither of the girl’s parents nor her grandmother spoke during the service, which ran slightly over one hour.

Yet there was a reading of a poem from Nevaeh’s father, which said in part: “I love you so very much. I just wish I now had told you that. … Baby girl, Daddy loves you, don’t ever forget that.”

The service opened with a guitar and vocal duet by John and Terry Vass of the Sarah McLachlan song “Angel.”

The Vass family played at an earlier prayer vigil for Nevaeh. Their performance yesterday of a song they wrote for Nevaeh evoked tears from members of the congregation.

Leaders of the service focused on the girl’s youth and innocence and celebrated how there is no doubt she is with Jesus Christ in heaven.

The Rev. Dale Hanford, senior pastor of Monroe Crosswalk Community Church, recalled the hundreds of members of the community who searched for Nevaeh after she disappeared on May 24.

She was last seen alive riding a scooter in the parking lot of the Charlotte Arms apartment complex on North Macomb Street in Monroe, where she had lived with her mother, Jennifer, and grandmother Sherry for only two months.

“This town was brought together by one little girl who was very powerful,” Pastor Hanford said. “I have never known a person before who has touched so many people in the state of Michigan.”

He went on to pray that the girl’s killers would turn themselves in.

Said Sam Luke, senior pastor of the Stewart Road church, “Ultimately, criminals will not have the final word. … Christ will.”

For weeks, family and strangers alike held out hope that Nevaeh would be found alive, but two fishermen discovered her body on June 4 in a shallow grave along the banks of the River Raisin.

The Monroe County Sheriff’s Office announced last week that DNA testing has confirmed her identity.

The sheriff’s office has released no more informa-tion on the autopsy that was performed by the Wayne County Medical Examiner’s Office in Detroit. The sheriff’s office has said it is tracking down 1,200 tips that have poured in.

Throughout yesterday’s service, a photograph slide show displayed stages of Nevaeh’s life through the final weeks before she went missing May 24.

At the end of the service, church visitors lined up to pay their respects to members of Nevaeh’s family and to bow and make the sign of the cross before the girl’s flower-draped casket.

Tennery Wilson of Monroe, who attended the service and took part in the search effort, said afterward in the church parking lot that she could never forget those photographs.

“What’s funny is that in certain pictures she looks younger, and then she looks older, and then in others she looks so vulnerable,” said Mrs. Wilson, a mother of seven grown children.

The procession that wound from the church through town to St. Joseph Cemetery was led by 10 police officers on motorcycles, with additional columns of at least 100 motorcyclists, along with many other vehicles.

Shortly before 2:30 p.m. the group passed Munson Park, where Andrea Adams and her daughter, Allison, 16, stood along the road embraced in a hug as Nevaeh’s hearse rolled by.

“This is to pay our final respects to her,” said Mrs. Adams of Monroe.

“It’s so devastating and unbelievable the way she died.”

Several minutes after the procession passed, she was still fighting back tears.

“This is my daughter and I thank God that nothing bad ever happened to her when she was little,” she said.

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