By Mary Walton, text and photos
Joe Lopez, who died last Friday, was many things in his life, all detailed in Monday’s Asbury Park Press obituary. Among them, undertaker, WWII Navy vet, fire chief, Neptune First Aid member, husband and father.
But to his fellow denizens of the Wisdom Bench in Ocean Grove, he was first and foremost one of theirs.
The Wisdom Bench is more a collection of boardwalk philosophers than a place. In the winter it’s an actual wooden bench situated under the showers on the south side of the Camp Meeting beach office; in summer, when the bench is removed, the guys and occasional gal gather in a corner of the boardwalk by the fishing pier and swap stories and wisecracks for hours on end. And that’s where Blogfinger found them Monday, soaking up sun and remembering Lopez with tales, small and tall.
“Tell her about the helicopter,” they chorused, and Sean O’Dwyer obliged in his lilting Irish brogue.
“One of his customers was a woman who ate fish all her life. In her will she wanted to be buried at sea. The object was to give herself back to the fish. You had to be 60 miles out at sea or something like that. And Joe had to take her out in a helicopter. And it was a small helicopter. Eventually they got there. The body was in a bag. On the way he had to carry it in his lap. It was a small helicopter. He had to push her out. But the body got stuck on the skin of the helicopter. So…”
And here O’Dwyer raises his feet to demonstrate how Joe delivered the final push.
“He almost went with her,” roars Andrew Peluso.
Much laughter. “That’s a true story,” they agree. Peluso avers, “Joe told me that at least three times.”
And then there was the time that Joe’s customer was a heavy-set deceased woman. As he prepared the body, he had to push one breast aside. In so doing, he uncovered a $50 bill! Well, he couldn’t very well give it back…
Once Joe had the bodies of two men awaiting burial in separate rooms of his funeral home in Neptune. The wife of one arrived for inspection. Looking over her deceased husband, she chastised Joe. As Peluso told it, she protested, “My husband looks terrible. His face looks terrible. The necktie isn’t right. His hair isn’t combed right.” She checked out the other dead guy, the one in the next room. “The guy in the other room looks gorgeous.” The woman started to cry.
“Joe told her to get a cup of coffee, come back in five minutes. She did it.” When she got back, her husband had been transformed. “He was in a beautiful suit, a beautiful tie, lying in a beautiful coffin.” The wife thanked Joe profusely.
“You know what he did? Joe cut their heads off. He switched heads.”
This is not a true story. But everybody loves it anyway.
There was the 7-foot-4 basketball player for whom Joe didn’t have a big enough coffin nor time to order one. So he cut off the man’s legs at the knee with a chainsaw and tucked them into the coffin.
True? Well, they say that’s how Joe told it. And don’t forget the wife who was so distraught over her husband’s death that she pulled out a knife at the wake and killed herself.
But enough of that.
Lopez, his friends agree, was a great guy and a colorful character. Mornings he would unlock the boardwalk restrooms, dust off the benches, and raise the American flag.
And he had neckties, many of them. At least 300, maybe 500, his friends say. “He wore a different one every day.”
Are they suggesting that the ties came from cadavers?
Says Dave Mitchell, “He had to take them from somewhere.”
Joe, they say, always had a tape measure with him. “He had all our measurements. Our weight and our preference [for burial].”
When Lopez’s wife, Anna, died in 2007, the Camp Meeting staff donated a bench in her memory. “The Wisdom Bench,” reads the plaque. At the moment it is a makeshift shrine, with Lopez’s obituary posted over it and a potted chrysanthemum stationed on one side. The guys said they would add Joe’s name on the plaque beside his wife’s.
“He was a good man and we’re going to miss him.”