The remains of Matthew Shepard, whose death became an important symbol in the fight against homophobia — and whose name is on a key U.S. hate-crime law — will be interred at Washington National Cathedral later this month.
Shepard’s parents say they’re “proud and relieved to have a final resting place for Matthew’s ashes.”
“This is incredibly meaningful for our family and for everyone who has known him,” Judy and Dennis Shepard said in a statement emailed to NPR. “We’d been looking for just the right place to finally put Matt to rest, and we think this is the perfect fit and the perfect time.”
News of Shepard’s interment comes 20 years after he was tied up, savagely attacked and left for dead in October 1998. At the time, he was a 21-year-old college student in in Laramie, Wyo. His brutal murder attracted intense media coverage at the time and galvanized support for laws protecting the rights of LGBTQ Americans.
His death has cast a long shadow across the two decades that followed — not only in newspaper headlines, but on stage and screen, too. The Laramie Project, a play focused on his killing, went on to become one of the most-produced plays in the U.S. and inspired a film adaptation.
The case also left a major impact on Capitol Hill, where the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act was passed under President Obama in 2009. Byrd, whose name joined Shepard’s in the bill’s title, was an African-American man who was killed the same year as Shepard and was dragged behind a pickup truck by three white supremacists in Jasper, Texas.
The Washington National Cathedral says it is “honored and humbled to receive the earthly remains of Matthew Shepard and entrust them to God.”
“While Matthew died too young,” the cathedral said, “his death nonetheless gave life to a new generation of activists and allies who are committed to proclaiming God’s love for all of God’s children — no exceptions or exclusions.”
His parents say they hope his spot inside the cathedral will become a place where people can visit and “reflect on creating a safer, kinder world.”
The Washington National Cathedral, which has served for decades as the place where the U.S. mourns and remembers presidents and other influential Americans, will honor Shepard on Oct. 26 in a public service that will be streamed online at 10 a.m. Eastern time. Shepard’s ashes will then be placed in the cathedral crypt, in a private ceremony.
For the Shepards, the decision to entrust their son’s remains to the cathedral ends decades of uncertainty. It was a complicated process, they said, citing both their personal wishes and their son’s role as a symbol in the fight for gay rights.
In a statement shared by the foundation that bears their son’s name, the Shepards said:
“When Matt was taken from us, we hadn’t had any death or plot plans. We were living overseas at the time, and from a practical standpoint, we did not want our son to be put to rest on the other side of the world. We didn’t want to leave him in Wyoming to be a point of pilgrimage that may be a nuisance to other families in a cemetery. We didn’t want to open up the option for vandalism. So we had him cremated and held onto the urn until we figured out the proper thing to do.
“We’re comforted to know he will be among other Americans who have done so much for our country.”
Judy and Dennis Shepard concluded their note by thanking people who have supported their family and fought to celebrate diversity and compassion over the past two decades. And in a nod to the upcoming midterm elections, they added, “Vote for Matt in November.”
Here’s how Judy Shepard remembered her son in a 2010 interview with NPR:
“Well, he was a 21-year-old college student who, like most college students I remember in my past, drank too much and didn’t study enough. He was gay and out and proud of who he was and who he was becoming. He had a smile, like all mothers say, that would light up a room, great sense of humor, very empathetic and kind, really cared about humanity.”
Shepard will join some 200 people whose remains have been interred in the cathedral over the past 100 years. Others include President Woodrow Wilson, Helen Keller and her teacher Anne Sullivan, and Adm. George Dewey.