Tulis honors grandmother’s memory in casket artwork

Chattanooga native Abigail Tulis, a sculptor and painter living in New York, paints the box in which her grandmother is to be buried Aug. 6 in Chattanooga. (Photo David Tulis)
An official from the national cemetery affixes a document on the end of the Marianne Tulis casket at the end of a brief family gathering Aug. 6 in Chattanooga. (Photo David Tulis)
Abigail Tulis works into the night to paint the casket of her grandmother, Marianne, a Swiss immigrant who took her several times to European cities so the girl might practice sketching and painting. (Photo David Tulis)
A homemade casket that takes an afternoon to build may not exactly line up in all its parts. But it saves the Tulis family of Soddy-Daisy at least $1,000 in funeral expenses. (Photo David Tulis)
Atlanta artist Thomas Tulis works to build a casket for his mother, Marianne, as the family honors her wishes to be thrifty in burying her. The family’s expense was $71 for wood and angle brackets for the box and $2,800 for transport and five days’ storage at a local funeral home. (Photo David Tulis)
While Uncle Thomas does dishes inside the Marianne Tulis house, granddaughter Abigail works Saturday night on painting her casket. (Photo David Tulis)
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. (Photo David Tulis)
Abigail Tulis reads a closing prayer photocopied from the Presbyterian book of church order. (Photo David Tulis)
Hixson and Soddy-Daisy cabinet makers were too busy to make a cabinet (coffin) for Marianne Tulis (or they flat-out refused), though her son David showed them this sketch, to which is clipped a receipt from Lowe’s for the F$71 in supplies, including about F$10 angle brackets and sales tax. One suggested F$400 but weeks out.
In this image, a crowd of stylized mourners weeps next to a partly ajar door painted on the ready-to-go casket for the late Marianne Tulis, dead at 95 in Soddy-Daisy, Tenn., and awaiting interment. (Photo Abigail Tulis)

CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. — Sculptor Abigail Tulis put on the finishing touches on a homemade casket in which she buried her grandmother in a funeral sendoff that emphasized saving money and artistically enriching the death rite of a loved one. 

Her work converted a plain pine plywood box into a depiction of the life of the woman who encouraged her in the arts and shepherded her to many locations in Europe where Tulis sketched and painted.

The Chattanooga native, 26, runs art and media projects from a studio in New York but returned to her family residence in Soddy-Daisy to give hospice care to her grandmother, Marianne Tulis. 

“I used designs that were informed by ancient Roman sarcophagi and medieval funerary monuments,” the artist says.

Abigail’s father, David, is a radio journalist and blogger in Chattanooga. He complains on the air about the absence of a “bottom in the casket market” with affordable burying boxes for poor people in the $200 to $400 range with local delivery (and local employment). (Photo David Tulis)

“On the lid I painted a version of Granma in a sort of gesture and composition of a medieval funerary monument, and I put an arch around her head, laying there, and her feet are crossed slightly, a little awkwardly. The proportions are off, but it’s OK because on a lot of funerary monuments the head-to-body ratio is a little bit different, and under her feet is a Wall Street Journal, which represents her wealth.” In ancient times artists depicted the owner’s dog at the feet surrounded by depictions of personal treasures. 

The expense of materials included $10 for angle brackets, here being drilled into place by Abigail’s Uncle Thomas of Atlanta. (Photo David Tulis)

The lid also shows the Staubli family coat of arms on a shield, “because Granma said always to be a warrior, not a worrier,” Tulis says.

On one side are two angels holding up a stylized portrait of the deceased. On the other, a gaggle of Romanesque figures — one of them weeping — surrounding a partly open doorway.

“The pine box was ideal. I was able to use the full surface. With a traditional casket there are lots of divets and molding, and handles. There would have been a whole lot more to work around.”

The senior Tulis, 95, daughter of a Swiss federal congressman from Zurich, died Aug. 2. She is buried next to her late husband, Robert, a TVA engineer, in the national cemetery in Chattanooga.

Read Mark Kennedy’s story about Abigail and the Tulis family at the Chattanooga Times Free Press

Family members say they were shocked by the monotony of standard casket design and their lofty prices. Abigail’s father, who airs a talk show at NoogaRadio 92.7 FM, built the casket with $71.49  worth of pine plywood from the Hixson Lowe’s. Running a drill and table saw was his brother, Thomas, an Atlanta painter and photographer.

“Affordable funeral options for common and poor people don’t exist,” David Tulis said. “There doesn’t exist a bottom of the market in which a burial box is between $100 and $400. There’s no way we could afford a F$1,200 minimum-price casket offered us. And besides, my mother was a thrifty soul and insisted we not waste any money on putting her into the ground. So we did our own thing and invested ourselves in the process.

“I bet there’s a good living to be had by some enterprising poor person in Chattanooga who wants to start such a business — hand-made caskets under F$400, made by a local person, delivered in five days — good profit margin — that kind of thing.”

Homeschooled by parents David and Jeannette Tulis, Abigail apprenticed two years with local artist Cessna Decosimo and at 18 moved to Manhattan to study classical art.


  1. Kelly Bush

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