The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Matthew Shepard, whose 1998 murder became a symbol for the gay rights movement, will be interred at Washington National Cathedral

His family didn’t bury his remains after Shepard was beaten and left to die near Laramie, Wyo., out of concern that the site would be desecrated.

Washington National Cathedral. (Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)
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When Matthew Shepard died on a cold night 20 years ago, after being beaten with a pistol butt and tied to a wooden fence, his parents cremated the 21-year-old and kept his ashes, for fear of drawing attention to a resting place of a person who was a victim of one of the nation’s worst anti-gay hate crimes.

But now with an anniversary of their son’s murder approaching on Friday, the Shepards have decided to inter his remains inside the crypt at Washington National Cathedral, where gay equality activists say they can be a prominent symbol and even a pilgrimage destination for the movement. Although the cause of LGBT equality has made historic advances since Shepard was killed, it remains divisive in many parts of a country reembracing tribalism of all kinds.

The 1998 killing of Shepard, a University of Wyoming student, by two young men in a remote area east of Laramie, Wyo., was so horrific that his name is on the federal law against bias crimes directed at LGBT people. It has been the subject of books, movies and the play “The Laramie Project,” which is one of the most-performed theater pieces in the country.

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Savagely beaten and left to die, Shepard was found almost 18 hours later by a bicyclist who thought his limp body was a scarecrow. Shepard died a few days later, on Oct. 12, 1998.

On Oct. 26 this year, his ashes will be placed in a niche in the National Cathedral’s columbarium, a private, off-limits area on the lower level of the massive Gothic cathedral, which is the seat of the Episcopal Church and a popular spot for high-profile national spiritual events. Shepard, who had been active in the Episcopal Church, will be one of about 200 people whose remains have been interred at the cathedral in the past century. They include President Woodrow Wilson; Helen Keller and her teacher, Anne Sullivan; and Navy Adm. George Dewey, said cathedral spokesman Kevin Eckstrom. Although visitors will not be able to access the crypt, cathedral officials are considering installing a plaque that they can view and touch, similar to one in Braille installed in honor of Keller.

Shepard’s father, Dennis Shepard, said Thursday that he was awed to think of his son in the company of Dewey and Keller. “They did such great things in their lives, and they changed the world. To be among people like that, what they did, is just stunning,” he said.

The Oct. 26 service will be open to the public and will be presided over by Washington’s Episcopal bishop, Mariann Edgar Budde, and Bishop Gene Robinson, whose 2003 ordination as the first openly gay bishop in the Episcopal Church set off a dramatic split in the denomination that is still unfolding.

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Robinson is friends with Judy and Dennis Shepard.

“If I know anything about God, it is that God can bring something good out of something terrible. And movements need symbols. [The gay equality movement has] the triangle, that reminds of what was used to brand us during the Holocaust; the rainbow flag; and we’ve got Matt Shepard, who became a symbol of how we are targets of violence,” Robinson said Wednesday night. “This could be a wonderful place for Matt’s ashes to rest, and where people could go and make a kind of pilgrimage. All of us human beings need special places to go and remember important things, and I think this could become a destination for LGBTQ people who have known violence in their own lives, which keeps being an issue, despite all the gains we’ve made.”

Dennis and Judy Shepard said that their son loved the Episcopal Church. As a child, he was an acolyte while his mother taught Sunday school; when he moved to Laramie for college, he joined an Episcopal church community there, Dennis said.

“He loved the ceremony, the pomp and circumstance that went with it,” he said. “I think he’d be thrilled to know that he’s home, in a place that he would like, a sanctuary. ... I think he’s laughing about the whole thing. ‘All this time, I finally ended up in the perfect spot. No wonder you wouldn’t do anything with my ashes.’ It’s like it’s meant to be.”

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Rather than fading, the symbolism of Matthew Shepard’s death has intensified over time, and those at the foundation named for him said its recent growth — and that of other advocacy groups doing similar work — reflects a reversal or stalling in the pursuit of full equality for LGBT people.

“We were hopeful through the Obama administration and with the end of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell,’ and the passage of gay marriage, that maybe we were moving into an era when social and political wars over gender and sexuality were fading, but it didn’t go that way,” said Jason Marsden, executive director of the Matthew Shepard Foundation, which advocates in particular for gay youths, including through hate-crimes legislation. Marsden was friends with Shepard in the year or two before he was killed. “In everything from the alt-right to white supremacist movements, these are reversals.”

Robinson, who now heads the department of religion at the Chautauqua Institution, a spiritual retreat center, said the gay equality movement has made “enormous progress” on the two coasts and in big cities. “Most people do not know, they don’t believe, they’re surprised to hear that in 29 states you can still be fired, thrown from your apartment or denied a hotel room just because you’re gay, and there is no recourse in the courts. On the one hand, there has been enormous progress, and on the other hand, we have so far to go. And we still have kids jumping off bridges and hanging themselves on swing sets.”

The cathedral has been increasingly vocal about its drive for LGBTQ equality. It held its first same-sex wedding in 2010 and welcomed its first transgender preacher to speak in 2014.

“Matthew Shepard’s death is an enduring tragedy affecting all people and should serve as an ongoing call to the nation to reject anti-LGBTQ bigotry and instead embrace each of our neighbors for who they are,” said the Very Rev. Randolph Marshall Hollerith, dean of Washington National Cathedral. “In the years since Matthew’s death, the Shepard family has shown extraordinary courage and grace in keeping his spirit and memory alive, and the Cathedral is honored and humbled to serve as his final resting place.”

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After Shephard’s murder, his family struggled to figure out how to bury the 21-year-old. “They were very cautious of doing something that would lead to weird pilgrimages or vandalism,” Marsden said. Westboro Baptist Church in fact made a name for itself after protesting Shepard’s funeral with anti-gay signs.

Those interred at the cathedral are selected by the dean, who picks people of “national importance, someone who has made a lasting contribution to humanity,” Robinson said. It’s not a secular sainting but more of an acknowledgment of unique service.

“Matt has been a key part of the fight for LGBT equality, and a big part of that has been in the nation’s capital. For him to be at rest [in D.C.], it acknowledges the part he played in the struggle for equal rights,” Marsden said.

Marsden said the foundation and the family have over the years discouraged supporters from creating memorials that could be vandalized. They encourage people to highlight positive responses to Shepard’s killing as opposed to images of him that could be desecrated. There is a memorial bench for him in Laramie that holds a plaque that says, “Peace be with him and all who sit here.”