Thousands who flooded Washington National Cathedral today for a service celebrating the life of Matthew Shepard, the 21-year-old whose murder 20 years ago in Wyoming became a potent symbol of anti-gay bigotry, heard a musical setting by University Carillonist Jeff Davis, as well as piece written by former University Carillonist Ronald Barnes.
“I am surprised and deeply honored to be a small part of that service,” Davis said today, after finding out just last night that his setting of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s “Vocalise” would be played on the Kibbey Carillon in the cathedral’s central tower. “I was deeply distressed by the violent, senseless and bigoted murder of an innocent young kid, and remain so to this day.”
Davis said his piece, originally written for voice and piano, and Barnes’s “Sarabande” were chosen by Edward Nassor, the cathedral’s carillonist. Barnes was the carillonist at the National Cathedral — the second largest cathedral in the country and the setting for many presidential funeral and memorial services — before coming to UC Berkeley, and “Sarabande” is his earliest carillon composition.
The livestreamed service, which began at 10 a.m. Eastern time, was held two decades after Shepard’s death, reportedly because his parents felt that enough time had passed since his funeral that they could safely lay his remains to rest. At his 1998 funeral, anti-gay protesters screamed at those who attended, and Shepard’s father wore a bulletproof vest.
Shepard’s ashes were to be buried in a crypt connected to the cathedral’s Chapel of St. Joseph of Arimathea. According to news reports, his parents consider the cathedral a safe place for their son’s remains and had feared desecration at other sites. Those close to Shepard and advocates for gay equality said they hoped the site will be a symbol and a pilgrimage destination.
Shepard, who attended the University of Wyoming, was beaten, tortured and left to die near Laramie on the night of Oct. 6, 1998. He died several days later from severe head injuries. Two men were convicted of the murder, and each received two consecutive life sentences.
His parents, Judy and Dennis Shepard, started the Matthew Shepard Foundation to honor their son’s life and aspirations. The foundation’s website says the organization’s beginning principle is to seek “to teach parents with children who may be questioning their sexuality to love and accept them for who they are, and to not throw them away.”
Shepard’s murder led to the passage of hate crime legislation, including the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, and also inspired films, novels, plays and songs.
NOTE: To hear an arrangement of “Vocalise,” Jeff Davis says his favorite is by Anna Moffo and Leopold Stokowski.