Matthew Shepard and the History of the Interment the Dead in Washington National Cathedral

matthew-shepard-300x197On National Coming Out Day, October 11, Washington National Cathedral announced that the remains of Matthew Shepard would be interred in its crypt following a public service of thanksgiving and remembrance on October 26, 2018. Shepard died on October 12, 1998, from severe injuries sustained in what many believe was an anti-gay hate crime. He has become a symbol and inspiration for the cause of LGBTQ equality.

Officially named the Cathedral Church of St. Peter and St. Paul in the City and Diocese of Washington, the cathedral is the chief church of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington and the ceremonial seat of the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church. The cathedral has always offered itself to the nation as the symbolic center of its religious life, or in the words of its current tagline, “a spiritual home for the nation.”

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Part of its ministry is to be a place of burial for notable figures in national and church life. Since the cathedral’s site was purchased in 1898, the remains of over 200 Americans have been interred there. Most received this honor because of their direct role in the cathedral’s life. They include clergy, musicians, artists, architects, engineers, and benefactors. Others, including President Woodrow Wilson, Admiral George Dewey, and humanitarian Helen Keller, were figures of national significance. Shepard will be the first such national figure interred in the cathedral since Keller’s funeral fifty years ago.

“America’s Westminster Abbey”

The reasons for this fifty-year gap can be found in the cathedral’s changing role in national life. In my research for book on the representation of religion in Washington, D.C., I have discovered that as Episcopalians sought to build the cathedral in the early twentieth-century, its promoters envisioned it as a resting place for America’s noble dead. Accordingly, they called it “America’s Westminster Abbey” and actively sought for famous Americans to be buried there.

America's Westminster Abbey
A ghostly George Washington overlooks the National Cathedral from _Build the National Cathedral_ (Washington, D.C.: National Cathedral Foundation, 1923).

This yielded several prominent burials, including President Wilson’s in 1924 and the removal of the body of Admiral Dewey from Arlington National Cemetery to the cathedral in 1925. Only with Wilson’s burial did large number of visitors first come to cathedral, which then consisted of only a single crypt chapel.

Businessman-turned-bishop James E. Freeman (in office, 1923-43) was particularly zealous in seeking interment of the famous. Soon after President Franklin D. Roosevelt was inaugurated in 1933, Freeman urged Roosevelt, a loyal Episcopalian, to designate the cathedral as his final resting place. The president rebuffed the offer. The day he learned that former secretary of state and Nobel peace laureate Frank Kellogg was being buried in the cathedral, Roosevelt took time to set down his own plans for outdoor burial at his Hyde Park, New York, home (Geoffrey Ward, Before the Trumpet, 1-3). Freeman’s efforts led Time magazine to report that he was known as the “body-snatcher” (May 9, 1932). The heirs of Thomas Edison, Jane Addams, and Andrew Mellon also declined Freeman’s offers. Others gladly accepted them. The cathedral shelters the remains of three recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize winners, Kellogg (d. 1937), secretary of state Cordell Hull (d. 1953) and international churchman John R. Mott (d. 1955).

Helen Keller’s 1968 interment was arranged long in advance. When her equally famous teacher Anne Sullivan Macy died in 1936, Freeman offered the cathedral as her final resting place to her heirs. Keller wished to for her own remains to rest with those of her beloved teacher and so her remains were placed in the cathedral’s private columbarium following a public service in 1968.

Entrance to Columbarium
Entrance to the Columbarium

In 1980 a plaque honoring them both was installed near the entrance to the columbarium.

From Burials to Funerals

After World War II the cathedral gradually grew larger in size. The main floor of its interior was completed in 1976. The completed structure was dedicated in 1990. As a large building that sought to be a church for the nation, the cathedral hosted an increasing number of funerals for national figures including Secretary of State John Foster Dulles in 1959 and President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1969. This ministry has continued to the present, as the recent funeral of Senator John McCain bears witness.

The cathedral’s place in the landscape and ceremonial life of Washington secured, its interior richly decorated with representations of Christian and American history, burials of national figures were no longer important for securing the cathedral’s national status. Also, in most cases famous Americans were like Franklin Roosevelt, they preferred to be buried close to home, often in outside cemeteries. McCain’s body left the cathedral to be buried with his classmates in Annapolis, similarly the bodies of presidents Reagan and Ford left the cathedral to return to their home states.

Matthew Shepard

Nonetheless, the decision of Shepard’s parents to lay their son to rest in the cathedral shows that in exceptional cases, Washington National Cathedral can still serve as a place of national sepulcher. It was precisely because the usual American practice of outdoor burial in a home town did not serve in their situation that they chose the cathedral. His parents explained to CNN that when Shepard was killed in 1998, they were living overseas. They did not want to bury his remains halfway around the world. They also expected his grave may become a place of pilgrimage and did not want it to be “a nuisance to other families in a cemetery.”

For the Shepards, the identity of the cathedral as an Episcopal church was also important. Matthew was an Episcopalian and he felt welcomed and accepted by his church in Wyoming. The Shepards have also found Episcopal leaders such as Gene Robinson, who was consecrated as the Episcopal Church’s first openly gay bishop in 2003, to be important partners in the work of the Mathew Shepard Foundation. “It’s reassuring to know he now will rest in a sacred spot where folks can come to reflect on creating a safer, kinder world” said his mother Judy Shepard in a statement.

Memorializing Shepard

Such a vision of peace and love has long been part of the cathedral’s ministry, but if and how Shepard will be publicly memorialized remains to be determined. With the exception of Woodrow Wilson’s body, which is in a sarcophagus in the nave, the remains of most of the cathedral’s dead are housed in the crypt or subcrypt, outside of public view. This will also be the case with Shepard’s. Most of the cathedral’s dead do not have memorials in the public sections of the church. Others have tablets or sculptures at various places in the church. Most, such as Keller’s, are simple inscriptions. Some are linked thematically to particular windows or other works of art as in the case of the “Universal Peace” window that memorializes Secretary of State Kellogg.

One intriguing possibility for Shepard are stained glass windows dedicated to him or the cause of LGBTQ equality. For many years the windows of the cathedral were complete. In September 2017, however, the cathedral’s leadership removed windows dedicated to the Confederate leaders Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. These windows were located in a particularly prominent and accessible location, at floor-level, near main entrance to the nave, next to Wilson’s tomb. A memorial to Shepard and the causes he has come to represent in this location could indeed become a place of pilgrimage.

There are many forms that such windows might take. Shepard has been the subject of many works of art including “The Ascension of Matthew Shepard” by Carl Grauer. This portrait is striking for its use of conventional religious imagery to honor Shepard. The memorialization of Shepard is a challenging project. He came to fame because he was a victim, but he is honored by those who in the words of his mother seek a “safer, kinder world.” His interment in the cathedral gives it a new opportunity to advance this goal.