When Matthew Shepard died on a cold night 20 years ago, after being beaten with a pistol butt and tied to a split-rail wood fence, his parents cremated rather than buried the 21-year-old, for fear of drawing attention to the resting place of a person who had become a global icon for combatting anti-gay hate.
With the anniversary Friday of their son’s murder, the Shepards have decided to do just that, interring his remains inside the crypt of the prominent 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 advancements since Shepherd was killed, it remains divisive anew in many parts of a country re-embracing tribalism of all kinds.
The 1998 killing of Shepard, a slight University of Wyoming student, by two young men in a remote area east of Laramie, Wyoming, 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 theatre pieces in the country.
Savagely beaten and left to die on a cold night, he 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, his ashes will be placed in a niche in the crypt 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 around 200 people interred at the cathedral in the last century. Others include President Woodrow Wilson; Helen Keller and her teacher, Anne Sullivan; and U.S. Navy Admiral 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 the one in braille installed for Keller.
The Oct. 26 service will be open to the public, and it 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.
Robinson is friends with Matthew's parents, 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."
It wasn't possible to reach Shepard's family, but Robinson said his parents were "looking for a safe place" to put their son's remains and had reached out to Robinson after someone suggested interring him at the Cathedral.
"We've given much thought to Matt's final resting place, and we found the Washington National Cathedral is an ideal choice, as Matt loved the Episcopal church and felt welcomed by his church in Wyoming," said Matthew's mother, Judy Shepard, in a statement released by the cathedral. "For the past 20 years, we have shared Matt's story with the world. It's reassuring to know he now will rest in a sacred spot where folks can come to reflect on creating a safer, kinder world."
Rather than fading, the symbolism of Matthew Shepard's death has intensified over time. 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 youth, 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 spiritual retreat center Chautauqua Institution, said the gay-equality movement has made "enormous progress" on the two coasts and in the 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 hosted 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."
Shepard had been active in the Episcopal Church as a youth, Marsden said, including being an altar server at St. Mark's in Casper, Wyoming. Yet after his murder his family "was struggling" to figure out how to suddenly bury a 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 its name significantly after protesting Shepard's funeral with anti-gay signs.
People 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 his 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.] 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 attacked, he said. 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 to him in Laramie that holds a plaque calling for “peace be with him and all who sit here.”