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Matthew Shepard was remembered in an emotional service today as his ashes were interred at the Washington National Cathedral in D.C.
"The poignant service was at once a funeral and a celebration of life, a moment of closure for Shepard's loved ones and of remembrance for all those moved by the murder of Shepard, who was pistol-whipped and left for dead in a remote Wyoming prairie," The Washington Post reports.
Shepard died October 12, 1998, six days after he was found hanging on a fence on the outskirts of Laramie. The gay University of Wyoming student was attacked by two men he had met in a bar, in a crime motivated by homophobia. He was just 21 years old.
Judy and Dennis Shepard, Matthew's parents, had feared his grave would be desecrated by haters, and they did not want to split up his ashes, so they did not settle on an interment site until now. The National Cathedral provides a secure site where visitors can come to reflect.
Bishop Gene Robinson, the first openly gay man to attain that rank in the Episcopal Church, "choked back tears" as he gave his homily, the Post reports. Recalling his consecration as a bishop about five years after Shepard's death, he said, "Just before I strapped on my bulletproof vest for my consecration, someone hand-delivered a note from Judy Shepard. It said, 'I know Matthew will be smiling down upon you tomorrow.'"
Robinson used the occasion to call out the Trump administration's attacks on LGBTQ people, including the recent news of a memo circulating among federal government agencies that proposes to deny the existence of transgender people when enforcing civil rights law. "There are forces who would erase them from America," he said. He urged his audience to vote in the midterm election November 6.
He closed his homily by saying, "There are three things I'd say to Matt: 'Gently rest in this place. You are safe now. And Matt, welcome home.' Amen." The crowd of about 2,025 people gave him a lengthy standing ovation. (Many others watched the service via live-streaming online.)
Dennis Shepard had spoken before Robinson, thanking the attendees for "helping us take Matt home." He added, "It is so important we now have a home for Matt. A home that others can visit. A home that is safe from haters."
Haters had come out in force at Matthew's funeral in 1998, including protesters from the viciously homophobic Westboro Baptist Church. Dennis Shepard even wore a bulletproof vest to the funeral. There were no protesters at the National Cathedral today, the Post reports.
Some attendees at the service were too young to remember Matthew's murder, but they recognized his significance. His death raised awareness of anti-LGBTQ hate crimes, and a federal hate-crimes law enacted during President Obama's administration bears his name as well as that of African-American hate-crime victim James Byrd Jr.
"As we were coming out, this affected our parents and informed their fears," Abigail Mocettini, 24, told the Post. "Acknowledging queer history is a thing that needs to be respected. Once the old guard gets older, people forget how we got to rainbow flags in Dupont," a reference to D.C.'s heavily gay Dupont Circle.
This week, Shepard's family further assured his place in history by donating some of his possessions to the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History. "We're all awed. It's just very humbling to see the Smithsonian and the cathedral recognize the power of Matthew's story all these years later," Jason Marsden, executive director of the Matthew Shepard Foundation, told the Post. "Especially for those who knew him, this is both something we never wanted and never expected. It affirms what we've always thought, that his story is powerful and inspires people."
Watch a clip of Robinson's homily below.