20 Years Later, Matthew Shepard is Finally Laid to Rest at the National Cathedral

“On a chilly night in Wyoming 20 years ago this month, a young man named Matthew Shepard was beaten and left to die. Shepard was gay, and his killing was widely seen as a crime of hate.

Friday, his ashes were placed in a crypt at the Washington National Cathedral.

Shepard's parents' requested that their sons ashes be interred at the cathedral only after deciding against other burial sites for fear they may be desecrated.

Rev. Gene Robinson tearfully welcomed attendees, especially those who are LGBT, saying ‘many of you have been hurt by your own religious communities, and I want to welcome you back.’

Shepard's father Dennis thanked the crowd for attending. ‘Matthew loved the church,’ he said, ‘he loved the fact that it was a safe place for anyone who wanted to enter.’

In October 1998, Shepard was beaten unconscious by two men he had encountered in a bar in Laramie, Wyo. After robbing him, the men left 21-year-old Shepard tied to a fence on the outskirts of town. Eighteen hours passed before he was found by passing bicyclists. He died from his injuries five days later without regaining consciousness.

Prosecutors alleged that Shepard was targeted simply because he was gay. The men charged with his murder, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, were sentenced to life in prison, where they remain.

In the years since, the circumstances surrounding the case have been disputed, but Shepard's murder has nevertheless come to be seen as a classic hate crime, highlighting anti-gay bigotry. Four months before Shepard was killed, white supremacists in Texas had tied an African-American man, James Byrd Jr., to a pickup truck and dragged him to his death. Outrage over the two brutal murders ultimately led to the passage of the Shepard/Byrd Hate Crimes Prevention Act in 2009.

The act expanded an existing federal hate-crimes law to include crimes based on a victim's sexual orientation, gender identity or disability. Shepard's killing became the basis for a play, The Laramie Project, which brought widespread attention to the problem of homophobia. Shepard's parents, Dennis and Judy Shepard, established the Matthew Shepard Foundation and became activists for gay rights and more vigorous prosecution of hate crimes.

Shepard's funeral in 1998 was met with noisy protests by anti-gay militants, and for 20 years his parents were reluctant to bury their son's ashes for fear any gravesite would be desecrated. The decision to seek his interment at the National Cathedral came as a result of the Shepards' friendship with Bishop Robinson. Robinson contacted the cathedral dean, the Rev. Randolph Marshall Hollerith, and Washington's Episcopal bishop, Mariann Edgar Budde, both of whom readily agreed to the placement of Shepard's ashes in the cathedral crypt.

‘The Shepards realized they had not come to full closure,’ over their son's murder, Robinson told NPR in an interview prior to the interment ceremony. ‘They began to think this might be the time to lay Matthew to rest.’

In addition, Robinson said, Shepard's interment at the cathedral is significant for the LGBTQ community in the United States, which has faced hostility from many people in conservative faith circles.”

(Source: NPR http://www.npr.org/)