The ashes of Matthew Shepard, the 21-year-old gay Wyoming college student whose 1998 murder made him a symbol of violence against LGBTQ people, have lacked a final resting place for two decades. All the while, his parents and many supporters ensured his death would not be in vain, waging a cultural and political battle against discrimination and hate crimes.
Twenty years after his murder, Shepard’s remains will have a permanent home — and in a prominent setting that has hosted funerals for presidents and other national figures, most recently the Washington, D.C., memorial for Sen. John McCain, and alongside the remains of some 200 other celebrated Americans including president Woodrow Wilson and Helen Keller.
His ashes will be interred Oct. 26 at the Washington National Cathedral, Jason Marsden, executive director of the Matthew Shepard Foundation, confirms to PEOPLE.
“This whole thing is such a grace note,” says Marsden, a friend of Matthew’s, whose killing became a flashpoint that drew large numbers of mourners and support for the family but also bigoted anti-gay protesters, and led his parents, Judy and Dennis, to fear their son’s eventual burial site might lead to disruption or invite desecration.
“This whole 20 years has just been so harrowing for the Shepards, and they’ve been such great stalwarts,” says Marsden. “This is kind of a piece of closure that none of us had expected. I found myself surprised by how emotionally powerful it was, and I talk about Matt every day.”
Matthew died in a Colorado hospital on Oct. 12, 1998, five days after he was abducted, robbed, beaten, and left tied to a fence in the cold outside Laramie, Wyoming. His convicted killers, Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney, both are serving two consecutive life terms for his kidnap and murder, after a prosecution in which the suspects raised a “gay-panic” defense and said they beat Matthew because he made an alleged sexual advance.
The path to having Matthew’s ashes rest in the National Cathedral evolved in conversations between the Shepards, who have participated over the years in social programs at the Episcopalian cathedral — most recently a screening of the 2013 documentary Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine — and the Rev. V. Gene Robinson, the first openly gay bishop in the Episcopal Church, Marsden says.
“He’s a dear friend of the Shepards,” Marsden says of the retired bishop. After the parents learned the cathedral offered a final resting place for prominent Episcopalians, Judy Shepard called Marsden about it. “She said, ‘We’ve been looking for the right place to put Matt to rest, and it looks like the National Cathedral is an option,’” he says.
Robinson, who has worked alongside the parents in outreach on LGBTQ issues, helped secure the placement, Marsden says.
“God can take something very, very bad and make something good come out of it,” Robinson told The New York Times. “I think that’s exactly what the Shepards have done for all of us, taking this tragic, awful event and making something meaningful and …read more