THE death of former Melbourne footballer and Brownlow medallist Jimmy Stynes set off a flood of tears and tributes this week that is rare for a sportsman.
Nanjing Night Net

Perhaps the most touching came from his old teammate Garry Lyon on The Footy Show.

With great humility and honesty, he explained how he hadn’t thought much of Stynes when they first met at Melbourne FC and that Lyon had failed to grasp Stynes’ approach to both the game of footy and life itself, but inevitably they became best of friends and that Lyon was a better person for knowing the Irish-born ruckman.

Less touching was Jason Akermanis’ summation of Stynes on a Queensland radio station. Akermanis has since apologised and explained what he meant to say when he described the late Demon as “a nasty man in his day” and questioned whether he deserved a state funeral.

“My comments in regard to Jim have been taken entirely out of context,” Akermanis said in his apology.

Sorry, Aker, but they weren’t taken out of context — you may have worded your own words poorly, but they weren’t taken out of context. There’s a big difference.

But I’m not here to Aker-bash. What is interesting though is the age-old taboo regarding speaking ill of the dead.

The backlash against Akermanis was not about whether he really thought such things about Stynes or whether they were true or not, but instead focused on an indignant rage that trumpeted “You can’t say that about someone who’s just died!”.

Why can’t you? Why isn’t someone allowed to say such things after someone has died if you’re allowed to say them while the person is alive?

Is it purely because the person is no longer there to defend themselves?

Or does respect for the dead overwhelm free speech?

Or do a person’s flaws simply evaporate in death? Are all sins forgiven in the act of dying?

Obviously it’s a sensitive time, so is it best to adhere to the grandmotherly advice that if you don’t have something nice to say don’t say anything at all?

Akermanis doesn’t deserve applause for his comments, nor do I agree with him, but perhaps it boils down to an ideal attributed to Voltaire: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

The Chaser got in all sorts of trouble with their Eulogy Song back in 2007, which asked similar questions while taking satirical swipes at the likes of Steve Irwin, Peter Brock and Princess Diana. Of course, they took it to absurd extremes (which is where part of the humour lies).

But at the heart of that ire-raising ditty was a kernel of truth — the foibles and follies of people are forgotten as soon as they shuffle off this mortal coil.

Take Whitney Houston for instance.

Two years ago, when she toured Australia, fans stormed out of her concerts, demanded their money back, and labelled her washed up. Gossip mags got plenty of mileage out of calling her a drug addict and an irresponsible parent.

As soon as she died, that all disappeared into the background.

Ditto for Amy Winehouse. While plenty of obituaries mentioned both singers’ struggles, the issues went from headline to footnote. And let’s not even mention Michael Jackson’s dark past.

Death has a habit of making heroes and heroines out of all but the worst kind.

We didn’t look for Hitler’s good side or Saddam Hussein’s, I suppose, although I’m pretty sure gangland criminal Carl Williams became a “loving father and husband” in the end.

But why is it that we can fearlessly tell the truth about a person when they are alive, but we are expected to change our opinions of them in death?

Akermanis, in his typically idiotic and unsophisticated way, was simply trying to be honest.

He chose the wrong bloke at the wrong time, but at least he was was brave enough to be honest.

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