Chalking leaves grave problems at Decorah’s Phelps Cemetery

A dozen or more stones were damaged by someone who “chalked” the gravestones while visiting the cemetery.

By Roz Weis,

A dozen or more stones were damaged by someone who “chalked” the gravestones while visiting the cemetery.

When working on some historical background for a Public Television program, Stacey Gossling of Decorah recently came across some disturbing findings at Phelps Cemetery in Decorah.

A dozen or more vintage, historical gravestones had been “chalked.”

Chalking tombstones can lead to grave problems, as Gossling said, the chalking process can be abrasive and lead to stone damage and stain.

She said the chalking has become a too-often practice involving rubbing a piece of sidewalk chalk over the engraving of stone to make the lettering stand out better, with sights set on improving photos.

The chemical residue left on the stone can eventually soak in and cause the monument to wear down.

The pressure of rubbing or using this chalk method can also cause the stone to fracture or crumble.

Some think the chalk will wash away, but that is typically not the case.

Tombstone chalking has erroneously been touted as a safe way to keep a visual record of a tombstone. But the truth is, it is harmful to tombstones and is currently being banned and outlawed in many different areas. The chalk can eventually wear away the carving on stones and loosen bits of the stone, causing flaking and breaking.

Some genealogy “searchers” have been known to visit area cemeteries to learn more about family history and photograph what is written on the headstones. Their methods to enhance the lettering have led to ongoing problems.

Cemetery preservation enthusiasts say with today’s photography advances, there is no reason to do chalking on a tombstone. Photographs can provide a much greater and more artistic visual remembrance of any stone.

Chalking is, sadly, a method that is still being promoted by people in the field as being a safe way to read hard-to-read tombstones. Unfortunately, there is still a lack of knowledge about this subject.

While visiting with Gossling as she painstakingly cleaned the headstones at Phelps Cemetery, she reiterated the fact that the ingredients in the chalk make it very harsh. She has seen instances of chalk actually bruising stones, and the stain is still visible years after the fact.

Additionally, there are false claims that using flour, bleach, vinegar, grass killer or shaving cream are good methods for making stones more readable. Not so, according to Gossling. Experts say these items have dangerous chemicals that can deteriorate the stones, much like acid. Gossling said that power-washing techniques are also discouraged.

Gossling, who is dedicated to cemetery preservation efforts throughout the Driftless area and beyond, said chalking at public cemeteries is a crime. The Decorah Police were summoned after the Phelps Cemetery incident, and investigation continues.

She discovered that some of the photos of the local headstones are being uploaded onto a website, and there are more than 100 or more featured on the website that have been damaged with chalk.

Gossling is always eager to share the correction way to clean stones.

In a separate program offered at Big Canoe Cemetery last week, Gossling, who is one of the local “Cemetery Nerds” in the area, spoke to a group and demonstrated the important aspects of cleaning gravestones. She distributed scrub brushes with bamboo bristles, wooden shins and the D2 biological spray, along with instruction sheets for those in attendance.

Stone upkeep

Families in the area are encouraged to check their gravestones to see if there is any residual chalk. She reminds families to use plain water and a soft-bristled brush to remove the chalk as soon as possible to prevent long-lasting damage.

She encourages genealogy enthusiasts and historians to realize that tombstones aren’t going to look new, and they shouldn’t.

She added that upkeep of the stones is not the responsibility of the cemetery grounds workers. 

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