Matthew Shepard Laid to Rest at National Cathedral Decades After His Murder


It took decades to find a safe place for the remains of Matthew Shepard, whose murder in 1998 as a 21-year-old college student turned him into a symbol for violence against gay people.

But rest finally found him on Friday during a ceremony of prayer, speeches and hymns at the Washington National Cathedral, the neo-Gothic, Episcopal house of worship that is a fixture of American politics and religion in Washington.

His father, Dennis Shepard, said last month that the cathedral was an appropriate place for his son, who was once an altar boy in the Episcopal Church, to be buried, and one that he would have loved.

Mr. Shepard; his wife, Judy Shepard; and their two children watched as the urn bearing Matthew’s ashes was conveyed down the aisle in a candlelit procession.

A single flute played “Morning Has Broken.”

“It is so important that we now have a home for Matt,” said Mr. Shepard, addressing the congregation. “A home that others can visit. A home that is safe from haters.”

Attendees, some of them weeping, filled the pews as Mr. Shepard spoke during the ceremony, which lasted more than an hour and was broadcast live on national television. The pews appeared almost filled to capacity in the 2,300-seat nave of the cathedral.

This 1989 file photo provided by the Matthew Shepard Foundation shows Matthew Shepard in San Francisco.CreditDennis Shepard/Matthew Shepard Foundation, via Associated Press

Mr. Shepard’s remains were later interred in the crypt, according to Kevin Eckstrom, a spokesman for the cathedral.

In 1998, Matthew Shepard, a gay student at the University of Wyoming, was robbed by two men, pistol-whipped and tied to a fence in Laramie, Wyo., where he hung bleeding in the cold until a passing bicyclist spotted him. He later died in a hospital.

Mourners flocked to his funeral in Casper, Wyo., but so did protesters carrying derogatory signs.

His parents wrestled with a location for a burial after that, fearing it would be at risk of desecration. The family had considered other options, including spreading his ashes over the mountains and plains of Wyoming. But they settled on the cathedral because they wanted a place they could visit to talk to him.

And that is what his father during his speech on Friday encouraged others to do.

“Matt was blind just like this beautiful house of worship,” Dennis Shepard said. “He did not see skin color. He did not see religion. He did not see sexual orientation. All he saw was a chance to have another friend. Just like this beautiful home we have here right now.”

He thanked those gathering for “helping us take Matt home.”

Mr. Shepard and others who addressed the congregation emphasized that the cathedral was an inclusive, accepting place, whether they were religious or not, and regardless of their sexual orientation.

Rev. V. Gene Robinson, who became the first openly gay bishop in the Episcopal Church in 2003 but has since retired, gave the homily.

“If you close your eyes and open your hearts, Matt is right here,” he said. Then later, weeping, he said there were three things he wanted to say to Matthew:

“Gently rest in this place. You are safe now. Oh yeah, and Matt, welcome home. Amen.”

Bishop Robinson had been working with Mr. Shepard’s parents on issues affecting lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people for years. When Judy Shepard asked him about the possibility of interring her son’s ashes at the cathedral, he said, he helped to make it happen.

In this Oct. 9, 1999, file photo, a cross made of stones rests below the fence in Laramie, Wyo., where Shepard was tied and pistol-whipped into a coma.CreditEd Andrieski/Associated Press

On Friday in his homily, the bishop said he had been crying for a week. He praised Mr. Shepard’s parents for not just grieving privately but for turning his killing, “this horrendous event,” into “something good.”

Bishop Robinson also referred to other victims of hate crimes, recalling James Byrd Jr., a black man who was dragged to death behind a pickup truck in Texas by white supremacists in 1998. Bishop Robinson noted that Mr. Shepard’s name was included on a law in 2009 that expanded the definition of violent federal hate crimes to include those committed because of a victim’s sexual orientation.

He urged people to remember the “bigger picture,” and the dangers of labeling others as “different from ourselves, which is code for not really human, and then you can do anything to them that you like.”

“People of color know that. The L.G.B.T.Q. community knows that,” he added. “And we are seeing way too much of that at the moment.”

The ceremony came days after The New York Times reported that the Trump administration is considering narrowly defining gender as a biological, immutable condition determined by genitalia at birth, the most drastic move yet in rolling back recognition and protections of transgender people under federal civil rights law.

“Violence takes lots of forms, and right now the transgender community is the target,” Bishop Robinson said. “There are forces about who would erase them in America. Deny them the right they have to define themselves.”

“And they need us to stand with them,” he said.

Mariann Edgar Budde, the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, told the gathering that 20 years of mourning was not enough for someone who is loved.

“Nor can 20 years heal the grief of such a loss,” she said.

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