The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A farmer couldn’t go to his aunt’s funeral because of covid. So he used sheep to send a heart-shaped message.

Ben Jackson, a sheep farmer, paid heartfelt tribute to his late aunt with help from hundreds of sheep on Aug. 5, 2021. (Video: Ben Jackson)

Whenever Ben Jackson visited his aunt at her home in Australia, she not only stocked the pantry full of snacks and cooked his favorite foods but also sent him and his sister home with handfuls of lollipops.

“My aunty had a tremendously generous soul,” Jackson, who lives in Guyra, a small town between Brisbane and Sydney near Australia’s east coast, told The Washington Post. “She was one of these types of people that never, ever forgot a birthday — you know, the type of person that just gets it, that just has that huge heart.”

Debra Cowdery — known to Jackson as “Aunty Deb” — died of cancer this month at 63. She lived in Brisbane, Queensland. Jackson said he never would have imagined missing her funeral, but Australia’s pandemic restrictions made crossing state lines tough. Guyra is in New South Wales — the state just below Queensland. The service was also limited to 20 guests.

“The realization of not being able to go and say ‘cheerio’ sunk in, and I felt completely and utterly helpless and hopeless,” Jackson said. “It hurts. It hurts a whole bunch.”

Jackson, a sheep farmer, had created art with his livestock in the past. During droughts, he would trail-feed his sheep by dropping grain out of the back of a truck. After doing that twice a day for months on end, “the brain and the soul get very crushed.”

To make the task more interesting, Jackson started laying the grain in the form of patterns and words. The sheep were trained to find the barley and would stick around to eat for about five minutes before wandering off. He started catching their actions from above using a drone and would share the videos on Instagram.

He had not posted much sheep art lately, but when his aunt died, Jackson said he had “a thunderbolt moment.”

“My Aunty Deb had one of the biggest hearts known to me,” he said. “Why not try to make a heart that showed just how big it was?”

The result has captured hundreds of thousands of viewers on social media. Jackson’s video, set to Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” shows hundreds of sheep forming a massive white heart in a green field.

“I think she was looking down and had a bit of a peek,” Jackson said of his aunt.

The video played at Cowdery’s funeral, which was live-streamed. Jackson said he was already a “blubbering mess” but was especially moved to see the tribute play in his aunt’s honor. His family, along with his aunt’s friends, also appreciated the homage, but Jackson did not expect it to go viral.

“I think one of the reasons that it has resonated is the fact that we all need to give each other a sort of a virtual hug,” he told The Post. “We need to share the love a bit, because we were missing out on those milestones — we’re missing out on births, we’re missing out on saying goodbye to our loved ones, and even birthdays or graduations.”

Jackson — whose art has also shown sheep spelling out “Merry Xmas” to the tune of Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You” and “Daft Punk” to the band’s “Robot Rock” — admits it took a few tries to get the heart right. The first time, he said, the sheep formed a shape that looked a lot more like the poop emoji.

“Whilst my aunty loved a good laugh and had this wicked sense of humor and would give you those wry smiles out of the corner of her eye, that wasn’t the send-off that I wanted to give her,” Jackson said. “But after a bit of practice and the dogs behaving and that sort of stuff, we managed to get what you see in the video.”

When asked what Jackson misses most about his aunt, he said choosing just one trait would be impossible.

“I miss her,” he said. “I miss her the most.”