Eighty-four-year-old Shasha Tolmachoff lives in Glendale, Ariz., but plans that when she dies, she will be buried in the City of Commerce, in the same dusty parcel where generations of Russian Molokans including her parents and in-laws have been laid to rest.
“It’s very comforting to be with them,” said the retired homemaker as she walked gingerly around the tightly packed tombstones at the Russian Molokan Cemetery on Slauson Avenue after attending the funeral of an elderly church member.
Tolmachoff is a member of a little-known Christian sect that broke away from the Russian Orthodox Church in the 1600s. About 60% of America’s church-going Molokans--about 3,000 people--live in Los Angeles. Since 1941, most of them have been burying their ancestors at the Slauson cemetery, sandwiched between a paper factory and a warehouse.
The 14-acre graveyard has about 2,500 graves and space for thousands more, free to dues-paying church members. Two smaller Molokan cemeteries in East Los Angeles are too small or too full to absorb many more graves.
In recent years, as commercial development has surrounded the Slauson cemetery and vacant land in Commerce has become scarce, banks and real estate firms have clamored to buy and develop the cemetery or its vacant 10 acres for nearly a half-million dollars an acre.
But the six Molokan churches that own the property have rejected all offers outright.
“If our people have put our blood, sweat and tears into this land, why move?” said Alex Goosseff, president of the Molokan Cemetery Assn.
The obscure cultural landmark is one of Southeast L.A. County’s most desirable industrial sites because of its central location and easy access to the Santa Ana, Long Beach and San Gabriel River freeways.
“If they were to put it on the market today, I could get them $10 a square foot. No problem,” said Jeff Stephens, an associate with CB Richard Ellis real estate. That translates to about $435,000 an acre.
The City of Commerce has “virtually zero [vacant] land available” and the vacancy rate for developed property is below 5%, he said. Because of that, Stephens said industrial firms would be willing to pay top dollar.
“Never, never,” answers Alex Tolmas, the cemetery’s caretaker. “This cemetery will be here for a long time.”
Tolmas estimates that there is enough vacant land in the northeastern portion of the cemetery to serve the Molokan community for the next 200 years. That gives the church plenty of years to keep leasing five acres of its vacant land as a parking lot for big-rig trailers.
The Molokan name comes from the Russian word “molok,” which means milk. The followers of the sect distinguished themselves by drinking milk instead of wine in religious ceremonies.
The Molokans have been compared to Protestants for rejecting the parent church’s orthodoxy, and also have been likened to Presbyterians for having lay ministers and a loose council of dominant elders.
In about 1905, thousands of Molokans left Russia to escape religious intolerance and the threat of the military draft, which violates their religious principles. Church prophets instructed the Molokans to migrate to “the promised land.” But the prophecy was not clear on an exact location, so some members ended up settling in Baja California where they established a small community known as Valle de Guadalupe. Others migrated to Northern and Central California. The majority, however, settled in East Los Angeles.
After the smaller Molokan cemetery in East Los Angeles filled up, church elders bought the land for the Slauson Avenue cemetery in 1941. At the time, the property around it was undeveloped farmland. The first tombstones were set nearly 12 years before the nearby Santa Ana Freeway was built and about 19 years before the City of Commerce was incorporated.
Starting in the 1970s, light industrial businesses began to dominate the landscape.
Molokan church members say they have become accustomed to burying their deceased loved ones only a few feet from the churn of business, and some nearby workers say they have come to appreciate the large, elaborate funerals.
During a recent funeral, a large congregation of Molokans from throughout Southern California gathered near the casket to sing songs in Russian. The sound of big-rigs along Slauson almost drowned out the voices.
The men wore white pullover shirts or kosovorotkas with high buttoned collars and tasseled cord belts around their waists. The women wore lacy head shawls, or kosinkas, and white dresses with aprons, often adorned with lace.
The service ended with several church elders, most wearing long beards, walking arm-in-arm to their cars, singing in unison.
“These people feel that if my grandfather was buried here and my family members are buried here, I will be buried here,” cemetery association president Goosseff said. “So, we feel very close to the people here.”