Matthew Shepard
Courtesy of Matthew Shepard Foundation
October 11, 2018 06:09 PM

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, Dennis and Judy Shepard, 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.”

Washington National Cathedral
Raymond Boyd/Getty

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 productive out of it.”

Matthew’s murder “became a symbol of the kind of mindless, pointless violence against us for no other reason than being who we are,” Robinson said. “It is important for us to remind ourselves that we are still trying to come out from under that shadow.”

Judy and Dennis Shepard in 2008
Laramie Daily Boomerang/Andy Carpenean/AP

Hate Crimes Legislation Named After Shepard

In recognition of the advocacy work by the Shepards and their foundation, Matthew’s name was attached to a 2009 federal hate crimes prevention act signed by then-President Barack Obama that extended existing hate-crimes laws to include gender and sexual orientation.

In the ensuing years, the Shepards have kept up their fierce advocacy.

Among other facets, the foundation’s web site includes resources for coming out and for conversations around local productions of The Laramie Project, a play based on interviews with “real people who lived at the epicenter of one of the nation’s most heinous anti-gay hate crimes,” according to the foundation.

In promoting the Emmy award-winning 2013 documentary, Judy Shepard, who is also president of the foundation, said: “I hope people will be reminded that Matt was an ordinary boy who experienced both struggles and triumphs in his life, that he was real to so many people … People see parts of themselves in Matt, both good and bad, and then the message sinks in, that these victims are more than icons or figures.”

“They’re people who feel love, pain, happiness and sadness,” she said. “They had lives familiar to our own, but somehow some of us are allowed to live when others aren’t. When people see and hear about the real Matt, the Matt we knew, it’s my hope they’ll understand what we’re fighting so tirelessly for.”

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Says Marsden: “Here at the 20th anniversary, it’s very clear to us that there’s been a whole generation that’s come up since Matthew was murdered. … His story is remembered by those of us of a certain age or older, but otherwise a lot of young people don’t know the story, including a lot of people in the LGBT community.”

“Our work lately is very much about trying to make sure the story gets remembered across the upcoming generations, because we’ve seen how powerful it is in inspiring people to become active advocates for equal rights,” he says. “Being in such a prominent burial location, it will be a part of keeping Matt’s story remembered.”

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