Gathering to celebrate the life of “one of the good ones”

Officers, family, friends, and community gather to honor MPD Officer Riley Kurtz


When Officer Riley Kurtz died from medical complications associated with pulmonary blastomycosis on Jan. 3, 2022, at the age of 24, his family, fellow officers at the Merrill Police Department and Kronenwetter Police Department, friends, and the community were in shock. In the words of Officer Joshua McCaskill to those gathered in attendance outside the funeral home that evening, after a multi-jurisdictional procession had escorted Officer Kurtz’s body from Aspirus Wausau to Merrill, “He was one of the good ones. You all know what I mean.”

The Merrill Police Department Officers began watch over Riley when he was brought back to Merrill and continued until Thursday, Jan. 5, “when we knew cremation rites would be accorded the following week,” Merrill Police Chief Corey Bennett said. “At that point it became too much to ask our people to staff the continuous watch until the following Tuesday (Jan. 11) when he was transported to Wausau. For a number of reasons, we still gave Officers the option to continue the watch, when and if they could fill it. Between our Officers and the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office Deputies, they refused to allow it to go unfilled. They continued the watch until Tuesday morning, Jan. 11, when Riley was transported to Wausau. Several agencies assisted with that escort, as well.” The stand-by watch shifts varied from two to four hours per person or sometimes more.

A celebration of life was held for Riley Kurtz on Saturday, Jan. 15, 2022, at the Merrill High School Field House with a visitation beforehand.

The Wisconsin Honor Guard Association played a huge role in planning the services. Law enforcement agencies provided an Officer stationed on urn watch during the visitation, comprised of multiple agencies including the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Department, Merrill Police Department, Kronenwetter Police Department, and others. Officers rotated the watch every 15 minutes until just before the service.

The Rev. Mike Southcombe from St. Stephens UCC officiated at the celebration of life. “ … Our meager tongues cannot even begin to give voice to the pain that we feel,” he said. “Riley’s life was real. The joy he lived and the joy he shared were real. And the despair and grief at his death makes all of us realize what a gift he was to all of us and what a gift every moment of life is for all of us.”

“It will take a mighty God to carry us through what we do today. … so we turn to hear God’s word of hope … it is this hope alone that can drive away our despair and even move us to offer God praise.”

Sharing scripture and Christian song to offer comfort, Riley’s service honored his life, but more than that, it offered encouragement to all those he loved and who loved him, and to all those honoring him with their presence. In the words of a song played at his service, “Til You Can’t” by Cody Johnson: “Don’t wait on tomorrow, cause tomorrow may not show … If you’ve got a chance, take it, take it while you got the chance. If you got a dream, chase it, cause a dream won’t chase you back. If you’re gonna love somebody, hold ‘em as long and as close as you can, til you can’t.”

Smiley Riley lived his life to the fullest in the short time that he had, and he would be the first to encourage others to live their life to the fullest and not waste a minute.

From the eulogies given by Riley’s Chief, Corey Bennett, and his partner, Officer Joshua McCaskill, to the words spoken by Pastor Southcombe, this was a common theme throughout the service.

Chief Bennett said Riley’s professional future “was just beginning, and it was certainly bright.” He spoke of a young man with an amazing personality, a love for everything outdoors, a man of integry and conviction, calling and purpose.

“Riley was taken from us far too soon,” he said. “I don’t think we have the capacity to understand why, nor do I believe we were meant to. His memory does live on in all of us. It truly does. Let us carry those memories every day so that he will never be forgotten.”

Partner and fellow Officer Joshua McCaskill eulogized an amazing young man whose life was cut too short. “We are all sad, hurt, angry, and healing, all at the same time,” he said. “We were quickly reminded to live and find happiness in living, something Riley was able to do flawlessly in his 24 years. Although he was only given those 24 years to live, people would argue it would take most of us two lifetimes to accomplish half of what he did. There was no need for a bucket list for him. He just knew how to live. … People just loved being around him. … you knew he was special. … Riley truly had a servant’s heart.”

He concluded: “To my good friend and partner, rest assured you will live on forever in all of us as we honor you by becoming a little more like you. Love you, kid. God bless.”

“We honor Riley and we worship Christ simply by living gratefully for every second of our lives …” Rev. Southcombe said. “God calls each one of us to serve, to point to God’s love and glory through what we do. … If you truly want to fill the void left by his passing, find your vocation, and you will find the joy that he brought into life. … Learn that much from Riley. … The death of one so young reminds us that life is short and every moment counts. With Riley, we do not need to dwell on his death for that, because his life was an example of joyful living. Let his life be what inspires us, as our faith can be what comforts us.”

“For whatever work God has called and equipped you, find your joy in it …” he said.

The Wisconsin Honor Guard Association provided full Law Enforcement Honors and ceremonies outdoors to conclude the service. Jon Shea was the piper for the recessional, law enforcement and emergency services personnel from throughout the Merrill and central Wisconsin community stood at attention, Chief Corey Bennett presented Riley’s parents with the flag, a lone helicopter flyover by Life Link III helicopter was conducted [an honor previously only part of a line-of-duty death ceremony but now included for active duty deaths], and Officer Riley Kurtz’s end of watch was called.

“Merrill Police Officer Riley B. Kurtz, Badge number 162, has answered his final call. His end of watch was Monday, January 3rd, 2022. … Rest in peace, brother.”

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