Kennedy: Hand-built pine coffin built with $71 in Lowe's plywood memorializes a frugal, self-sufficient life

Contributed Photo/ Chattanooga native Abigail Tulis, a sculptor and painter living in New York, paints the box in which her grandmother is to be buried August 6 in Chattanooga.
photo Contributed Photo/ Abigail Tulis, 26, works into the night to paint her grandmother's casket in the carport of her house on a hilltop in Soddy-Daisy, Tenn.

When she was young, Abigail Tulis and her late grandmother, Marianne Tulis, were frequently travel companions.

Abigail, now 26 years old and working as an artist in New York City, said that from age 9-16 she and her grandmother took biennial trips to Switzerland, Marianne's home country.

"We were very close," Abigail said. "Besides my parents, she was the main adult in my life."

Marianne, the daughter of a Swiss government official, taught Abigail how to speak German and helped pay for her art education. When she was a girl, Abigail and her family lived in an upstairs apartment at her grandmother's home.

An elegant woman with classical tastes, Marianne taught herself how to invest by reading the Wall Street Journal, Abigail said.

"She had nice clothes and nice jewelry," Abigail said. "She would only wear real gold and real gemstones. But she also sewed all of her own clothes as an adult. She was always making things."

photo Contributed Photo/ Abigail Tulis reads a closing prayer at her grandmother's funeral in Chattanooga.

Earlier this summer, when 95-year-old Marianne's health failed, Abigail agreed to come home to Soddy-Daisy to help with her grandmother's end-of-life care. It was a tender time of reflection for Abigail and her family, she said.

"It was very sad, but it was also very beautiful [to see the family come together]," Abigail said. "She was a special person and a good mother."

Marianne, a naturally frugal person, had told family members that she just wanted "to be buried in a pine box," Abigail remembered.

Marianne died on Aug. 2 and was to be buried in Chattanooga National Cemetery beside her late husband, Robert, who had been a TVA engineer.

To adhere to her wishes, Abigail's father, David Tulis, a radio talk show host (NoogaRadio 92.7 FM) bought $71 worth of pine plywood at the Lowe's store in Hixson. David and his brother, Thomas, an Atlanta painter and photographer, then built their mother's coffin together.

When it was done, Abigail set about painting the pine box incorporating elements of classical art.

"I'm a traditional, figurative sculptor," Abigail explained. "I had a lot of references in my mind."

photo Mark Kennedy

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She said it took about a day to complete the artwork. On the lid, she painted a stylized image of her grandmother with a copy of the Wall Street Journal at her feet. Angels holding a portrait of the deceased decorate one side of the coffin, and on the other side is a group of Romanesque figures.

The lid also features a rendering of the family coat of arms. Abigail said this was nod to one of her grandmother's favorite maxims: "Be a warrior not a worrier."

Abigail said the hours she spent painting the coffin provided a time of reflection. She thought about her grandmother's life and death, and came to terms with the visceral pain of her passing.

Abigail said she learned much from her grandmother: How to be independent. How to live a simple, but rich, life.

"She was someone who was very resilient," Abigail said. "She had a rich inner world."

Abigail said she learned from her grandmother: "It doesn't matter what possessions you have. You can have a wonderful life and live very simply. Happiness is about family and relationships."

Contact Mark Kennedy at or 423-757-6645.