Motorists who drive west on 3rd Street past the 710 Freeway may get a glimpse of 103 year-old charcoal gray tombstones at the Serbian Cemetery in East Los Angeles. And if they’re lucky, they may get to see an unusual sight: red and black chickens scampering about the cemetery or perched atop the tombstones.
But in a predominantly Latino neighborhood, where it is common for families to keep chickens and other animals in their backyards, seeing these birds at a graveyard is not that unusual to locals. In fact, the chickens as well as roosters have been part of the manicured cemetery’s landscape for decades, say neighbors, visitors and cemetery staff.
“As long as we’ve been coming – which is my whole life – the chickens, I remember them being here,” said Helen Djukic, 46, standing near her father’s grave. “It’s very natural for the chickens to be here. I love that the chickens have a safe place to roam and eat the grass. It’s fantastic. It’s like a sanctuary here.”
People have different ideas on how the cemetery became home to abandoned chickens. Some say that neighbors who had too many of them in their backyards simply walked into the graveyard and dumped the unwanted extra fowl. Others say they were thrown over the fence at night when the cemetery is closed and unattended.
Regardless of how they got there, the birds are welcome guests, said John Lovrensky, the vice-president of the Serbian United Benevolent Society.
“Somebody dropped the chickens when they were little, and we didn’t have the heart to get rid of them, so we just let them roam around,” said Lovrensky, whose group owns and maintains the cemetery.
The cemetery is evidence of East L.A.’s past cultural diversity. Serbian, Russian and Chinese immigrants once called East L.A. home. Now, descendants of Serbian immigrants who lived in East L.A. in the early 1900s, visit the burial ground, where the tombstones are carved with the names of the dead in both English and Cyrillic letters.
Visitors to the cemetery, like Raika Raicevic, 53, wouldn’t mind seeing more chickens on the spotless lawn. Raicevic, who has been visiting the gravesite of her mother since she died in 2002, is one of several visitors who feed the birds. The West L.A. resident said she often scatters chicken feed at her mother’s gravestone.
“I love chickens,” Raicevic said. “I don’t mind feeding them. Animals are God’s creatures.”
An avid photographer, Raicevic often takes photos of the chickens at the graveyard. Although she enjoys seeing the chickens, she said there are a few people who don’t like them at the cemetery.
“The majority of people don’t mind because the chickens are making people feel welcome,” she said.
Jose “Pedro” Guevara, 63, the cemetery caretaker, agrees that cemetery has been a sanctuary for the various chickens he has cared for over the last 15 years. Currently, two hens and three roosters live at the cemetery but he has cared for as many as nine.
“The chickens are happy living here,” Guevara said. “I feed them and take care of them because it’s not their fault they were left here.”
People sometimes ask him how he keeps the chickens from multiplying and taking over the cemetery grounds. He says he eats the eggs the hens lay daily. If he didn’t eat the eggs the place would be crawling with fowl, he said.
Joe Hernandez, 69, who has a clear view of the cemetery from his home on South Humphreys Avenue, said there are no complaints about the birds.
“They don’t bother anybody. The train makes more noise than the chickens,” Hernandez said of the Metro Gold line Eastside extension that began running by the cemetery on 3rd Street three years ago.
Guevara, who is originally from San Luis Potosi, said as long as he is the caretaker of the Serbian Cemetery, he will take care of the chickens. For him, they are a distraction from his daily work routine. “People tell me that it must be depressing working here, but for me it’s happiness,” said Guevara as he sat under a tree near a gardening shed, feeding the chickens at his feet.