WASHINGTON – Tensions were so fierce on the day of Matthew Shepard’s 1998 funeral that his father wore a bulletproof vest under his blue suit. On Friday, the baby-faced young man who became a worldwide symbol of the gay rights movement, will be interred at a cathedral at the U.S. capital’s highest spot before a crowd expected to be in the many hundreds.

The 60- to 90-minute service at Washington National Cathedral, host of many presidential memorial services, will be in structure like a formal Episcopal funeral, with bishops’ sermons and choirs and scripture readings. Shepard’s family and friends they hope it serves as a celebration of his life that wasn’t possible at the tumultuous time of his murder, when anti-gay protesters screamed at funeral-goers.

Matthew Shepard in San Francisco in 1989. Dennis Shepard/The Matthew Shepard Foundation via Associated Press

Friday, they say, is a chance to properly put Shepard’s ashes somewhere “safe,” his mother, Judy Shepard, said..

Judy and Dennis Shepard hope to find some closure in the interment of their son’s ashes, deep in the Cathedral’s crypt, off the Chapel of Saint Joseph of Arimathea, named for the man who the Bible says gave Jesus his tomb. Those close to Shepard and advocates for gay equality hope the site can be a prominent symbol and even a pilgrimage destination for the movement.

Despite many advances for LGBT people since Shepard’s death, the cause for many Americans remains divisive, and just this week reports surfaced that President Donald Trump’s administration is “seriously” considering changing the way it treats transgender people under the law – a fresh and direct aim at transgender rights.

Judy Shepard told The Washington Post that until a couple years ago they thought they’d be shifting from anti-hate crime advocacy to focus on Matthew’s memory. But Trump’s election has in some ways put the movement “at ground zero again,” she said.

Cathedral officials say they don’t know for sure how many will come but expect more than 1,500 people inside the soaring Gothic nave. The building is the second-largest cathedral in the country and is the national cathedral of the Episcopal Church, to which Shepard belonged.

Officials say it’s possible a small group of protesters may be there from Westboro Baptist Church, a tiny Kansas church that pickets frequently against gay rights.

To people old enough to remember Shepard’s killing, when he was pistol-whipped and left for dead, tied to a remote fence, the anniversary is a jarring date. Younger Americans are growing up in a different era of out transgender politicians and TV show characters.

Some close to Shepard say even with his fame – his killing is the subject of many books, shows and one of the most-produced plays in the country, “The Laramie Project” – the idea of his interment in the prominent cathedral feels momentous. Also this week, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History received a donation from the family of some of his belongings.

“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,” said Jason Marsden, executive director of the Matthew Shepard Foundation, which advocates in particular for gay youths, including through hate-crimes legislation. Marsden was a friend of Shepard’s at the time of the killing. “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.”

The homily will be given by Gene Robinson, the first openly gay person to be made a bishop in the Episcopal Church. Robinson’s 2003 ordination set off a dramatic split in the denomination that is still unfolding. Also presiding will be Washington’s Episcopal bishop, Mariann Edgar Budde.

Among those singing will be members of the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington D.C.; GenOUT, a chorus for LGBT youth; and Conspirare, Grammy-winning choral group that these days is touring “Considering Matthew Shepard,” a classical project created as a “compassionate musical response to the murder of Matthew Shepard,” according to the group’s site.

Other music to be played include Cat Stevens’s “Morning Has Broken,” said to be a favorite of Shepard, “Imagine” by John Lennon and “MLK” by U2.

There will be a scripture reading from Romans 8, a passage read at Shepard’s funeral 20 years ago. It includes the phrase:

“I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

After the service, only the clergy and family will descend to the area of the columbarium, where dozens of other prominent people’s ashes are kept, for a small interment ceremony. In that area is a public chapel, which is outside of the columbarium where Matthew Wayne Shepard’s remains will rest.

For some of those performing in Friday’s service, the chance to be a part of Shepard’s interment was particularly poignant.

Marcus Brown, a 42-year-old Gay Men’s Chorus member and District of Columbia resident, vividly recalls the week of Shepard’s death. Brown was a college student at Howard University, hoping to escape the rural South Carolina hometown he grew up in. He remembers thinking how closely his own life paralleled Shepard’s, “being from places that were not accepting and finding the best ways to cope with how to exist.” At the time of Shepard’s death, he had not yet come out as gay.

As Brown prepared to sing at the interment, he reflected on the uncertainty and fear he felt at the time, but also on the confidence and freedom he has gained in the 15 years since coming out as gay, in part thanks to Shepard.

“It’s our responsibility as members of a certain age to pass those stories down,” Brown said, “to explain that the progress that we have made has come through a lot of trials and tribulations.”