Instead, it ended with a funeral for the 2-year-old in the city his family tried to flee.
Aylan's body arrived in the Turkish city of Istanbul on Friday. From there, it made its final trip home to Kobani, the Syrian city his family left to escape the daily barrage of bombs.
The tiny boy with a cheeky smile may be gone, but the wrenching images showing his drowned body will live on.
The photos, which have galvanized the world and become the latest symbol of the migrant crisis in Europe, show his body lying on a Turkish beach. He's wearing a red shirt and black shoes, his face partly covered by sand and gentle waves, as if he were sleeping.
Only his father survived
Aylan's family was among the throngs making the treacherous journey aboard overcrowded rafts in the choppy Mediterranean waters.
Exhausted by the constant conflict and struggle for survival, they left their hometown in search of a better, safer life.
Aylan, his brother, Galip, 4, and mother, Rehen, drowned trying to make that dream a reality. The children's father, Abdullah Kurdi, survived, and accompanied their bodies to Kobani, where they were buried.
"I don't know what to do," he said as three coffins sat nearby. "I don't know what to say."
Kurdi said he will stay in the war-torn city where his wife and children are buried adjacent to one another.
Tiny body, big message
Abdullah Kurdi says the trip from hell started when he boarded a small, overcrowded boat in Turkey with 12 people on board. It was manned by two smugglers: a Turk and a Syrian.
"I told him, 'Should we empty the boat? Should I get off with my wife and child?' "
One of the smugglers replied, "'No, no, it is good,'" he recounted.
As soon as the boat set out, large waves crashed against it. They pounded harder, forcing one smuggler to jump overboard and swim toward shore. Kurdi said he tried to take control of the boat, but it capsized in the rough waters.
"I tried to reach for my wife and children," he said. "I was in the water for 20 minutes. One person after another was dying."
Kurdi, who was trying to get to Sweden by way of Greece, described his life as hopeless without his family.
"I don't want anything else from this world," he said. "Everything I was dreaming of is gone. I want to bury my children and sit beside them until I die."
Four Syrians are in custody on suspicion of human trafficking in the deaths.
Trying to get to Canada
Abdullah Kurdi's sister had filed refugee paperwork to obtain permission for her family to live in Canada, but the application was rejected in June, Canadian Parliament Member Fin Donnelly told CNN partner CTV.
But Tima Kurdi, who lives in Vancouver, said the paperwork was for a different brother. The Department of Citizenship and Immigration Canada confirmed Thursday it never received an application for Abdullah.
Tima Kurdi said she knew of her brother's plans to make the dangerous voyage, and has talked to him recently.
"He is so proud of his kids to be the wakeup call to the world," she told CTV. "He is proud of them so it will be better for the other Syrians in desperate need."
She said she sent him $5,000 Canadian dollars to pay for the trip and urged him to "make sure you buy a real life jacket and not a fake one."
He told her he purchased the life jackets.
Thousands have died
Hundreds of thousands of migrants have traveled by boat or train, taken crowded buses or walked for days, sometimes months, to reach Europe's shores.
More than 2,600 people have died trying to cross the Mediterranean to Europe this year alone, making it the most deadly migrant crossing point
in the world. The International Organization for Migration
warned last month that those numbers will soar
In one case last month, 71 bodies
-- mostly people who had fled Syria
-- were found in an abandoned truck in Austria.
Nearly three-quarters of the world's migrant deaths this year have occurred in the Mediterranean, according to the organization. And the number of deaths in the region so far this year -- 2,643 -- is nearly 20% higher than last year's 2,223
Some have drowned, and others were crushed in stampedes or asphyxiated by boat engine fumes.
More than 350,000 people have arrived in Europe so far this year, seeking sanctuary from war, persecution or poverty.
Their arrival has sparked support in some areas across Europe and backlash in others.
Foreign Ministers Paolo Gentiloni of Italy, Frank-Walter Steinmeier of Germany and Laurent Fabius of France have presented the European Union with a joint document
calling for a revision of asylum rules and a fairer distribution of refugees. No specifics have been provided.
"These people are forced to go on boats, they pay 4,000 or 5,000 euros and they die in these desperate circumstances," said Antonio Guterres, the U.N. high commissioner for refugees. "This doesn't make sense. We need to have a coherent response to this situation ... only Europe as a whole, based on solidarity, can give that response."
Aylan's photo has sparked criticism of Europe for not doing enough to help the refugees and migrants escaping from Africa and the Middle East.