Last fall the remains of Matthew Shepard found their permanent resting place in the columbarium of Washington National Cathedral. As I wrote at that time, no similarly national figure had been interred in the cathedral since Helen Keller in 1968. Now Shepard will be memorialized with a bronze plaque similar to Keller’s in the cathedral’s chapel of St. Joseph of Arimathea.
Keller, an author and activist, graduated from college and lived a productive and influential life despite being deaf and blind. Accordingly, the inscription on her memorial plaque appears in Braille as well as Roman type. It is shinny and worn from the touch of many hands.
The Washingtonian reports that Shepard’s mother insisted that his plaque also be written in Braille. She believes that her son, a gay University of Wyoming student who was brutally murdered in 1998, represents marginalized people included “immigrants, minorities, and the disabled.” She wanted a plaque that people could reach out and touch.
Memorials in Washington National Cathedral
In first half of the twentieth-century, when the cathedral was being constructed, cathedral leaders hoped to make the cathedral the final resting place of national figures. They were inspired by the example of Britain’s Westminster Abbey.
These burials brought fame to what was then more construction site than church. It was President Woodrow Wilson’s interment in 1924 that first drew large number of tourists through the cathedral’s gates. Cathedral leaders also sought to raise money to honor these heroes and construct portions of the cathedral’s structure as their memorial. This was achieved, for example, in the dedication of bays of the cathedral’s aisles in honor of Wilson and Secretary of State Frank Kellogg. Others interred in its crypt were honored with large memorial tablets such as those for Secretary of State Cordell Hull or ecumenist John R. Mott.
This tradition had ended by the time of Keller’s death in 1968. Twelve years elapsed until a memorial to her and her teacher Anne Sullivan Macy was unveiled. The Keller memorial is more modest than the Gothic tablets but also more engaging. It can be touched.
The Chapel of St. Joseph of Arimathea
It makes sense that a similarly inviting plaque will be installed for Shepard. The chapel in which the plaques appear is beneath the cathedral’s crossing and tallest tower. It is one of the most moving spaces designed by architect Philip Frohman and features a magnificent mural of the burial of Christ by John de Rosen (Jan Henryk de Rosen).
The chapel is the middle a series of three chapels focused on Christ’s birth, death, and resurrection. The cathedral’s first architect, Henry Vaughn, designed the Bethlehem Chapel. After Vaughn’s death, Frohman designed the other two. Because it is only accessible by stairs, the chapel is now little used for worship services. It is good that Shepard’s memorial will draw more people into this meditative room.
The plaque will be dedicated in a service in the cathedral’s nave at 7 p.m. on December 2, the day after Shepard’s birthday. It is open to the public, but the cathedral requires replies on its website for planning purposes.