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Placenta: Clinical Waste?

I was recently reading over a doula client's birth plan, and I read the words:

“I do not want the placenta you can take it away”

My heart sank.

Every time I think of a placenta being chucked in a bin with bloody swabs, plastic gloves and other 'clinical waste', I feel a real sadness that as a culture we have completely lost touch with the sacredness of birth. How we treat our placentas is just one example of that.

I asked the mother whether I could take her placenta if she didn't want it. I said I would like to take some photos of it and to bury it, as I have a great affinity for placentas. She said I absolutely could take it and do what I wanted with it, no questions asked. Some weeks later, after the birth, when I got it home and took it out of its plastic box, I was amazed at the beauty of it (pictured here). I've not seen many placentas where the cord insertion is so much to the side. It really looks like the 'tree of life'.

As I was laying out the placenta on our kitchen table whilst preparing for my husbands' birthday party; and later whilst digging the hole to bury it in, hitting upon stone after stone after stone, I did question why I had opted to do this. What difference does it actually make, I thought?! If nothing else, I thought, it made a difference to my conscience. I have learned again and again in life that if I ignore those quiet little signals or intuitions that come to me, I am denying a part of myself and things generally don't turn out as well as they might have had I listened to the quiet voice within. So I carried on, and buried the placenta, with a little prayer for the baby's life, and for the tree that this placenta would nurture and for the earth herself which would be fed by the nutrients and the love within this placenta.

A few days later, I sent the picture to the mum who had grown and birthed this placenta, and told her I had buried it by a baby chestnut tree. She responded saying she had no idea how beautiful placentas were and how special they were. She said she was so glad that it didn't go in the hospital waste and had no idea how important it would feel to her that it had been well taken care of. She also said she would like to come and visit the spot where it is buried with her baby one day. This was a beautiful affirmation for me that I had done the right thing...

My passion for placentas was peaked during my 3rd pregnancy when I attended a Birth Conference and met many great birth attendants from all over the world.

Amongst them was Midwife Ibu Robin Lim who runs several birth centres in Bali and the Philippines. She has written a book on the placenta, detailing the traditions from cultures all around the world of how the placenta is honoured, revered, used as medicine, or buried with significant objects intended to support the development of the child. Whether buried, or taken into the body as medicine for the child, the placenta is always seen as an anchor for the child whenever s/he begins to lose her way in life. Taking the medicine – perhaps in the form of a dried powder sprinkled on food – or visiting the site of its burial, serves as a reminder of the person's deepest sense of belonging, of their original sense of oneness with the Mother and their connection to their original Source, in the most basic, physical sense of the word.

At that conference, I also had the opportunity to hear some of the wisdom of Traditional Colombian Midwife, Ramiro Ramirez. He spoke about the traditions in his culture surrounding childbirth and in particular what they do with all of the bodily fluids, mucus, and most especially, the organ of the placenta at birth. The mucus plug is saved and brought to the mouth of the river. The blood is all captured in a clay pot – I think it is offered to the earth, though I can't remember precisely. And the placenta is used to print the baby – front and back – and then buried in different locations, depending whether the child is male or female.

My understanding of these world traditions is that there is a deep reverence and respect for the gifts of life; that there is an understanding of the reciprocal nature of life; that nothing is 'waste', everything is useful and can be used to feed life.

I have come to see that no matter how distant we feel from the earth as a living being, and no matter how estranged we are to ritual and ceremony in our daily lives, most people, across most cultures these days, can still get on board with the benefit of planting a tree to commemorate somebody's life. Why not do that at the beginning of somebody's life and add significance to that act by burying an actual, vital part of that being that once grew as they grew and that was their life support?

In many cultures the placenta is called the baby's twin, or its guardian angel, or the 'little mother'. I wonder, if we grew up knowing about our placentas (that they even existed would be a wonderful start!), whether it might help to lessen the sense of loneliness and isolation so many people feel nowadays.

When I look at our society today which appears to have lost all sense of belonging, all sense of true purpose in life... vast populations of people who are completely lost and disconnected, it makes sense to me that most of our placentas were likely discarded with the 'hospital waste', thrown out as rubbish and probably never even seen by the women who grew and gave birth to them.

I don't necessarily think that if your placenta wasn't lovingly buried in a handwoven basket, or preserved and made into medicine for mother and babe that you are somehow doomed to feel disconnected and ungrounded for the rest of your life! There are so many ways to reconnect and to find our sense of rootedness and belonging in this world. Reconnecting with our placentas is just one of the ways. It was suggested during my doula training with Red Tent Doulas, that we could reconnect with our placentas at any time in life, no matter what happened to them at our birth. Some people wrote a letter to their placenta; some chose to create a ritual where something that represented their placenta was buried and honoured… One wonderful woman I know took a picture of the hospital's incinerator chimney to commemorate the 'resting place' of her placenta!

Which brings me to my final point… The resting place of our placentas. If you know of any placentas still hanging around in a freezer somewhere, I would implore you and encourage you to get them out, and to either make that medicine you always intended to, or to bury them! I have heard from many women that once they saw their placenta go into the ground (or consumed by themselves or their child) that their birth was only then complete. That while they lie frozen, awaiting their final destination, a part of the birth process remains frozen in time, incomplete, and without closure.

There are so many levels and ways we can look upon the relationship of the placenta to the birth, to the mother and to the child. I believe we can all find a way of honouring this incredible organ in a way that feels right and befitting to us in a diverse world of beliefs and circumstances.

So wherever your placenta may be, whether you've seen it or known it or not, let's all say a little thank you to our placentas for getting us here alive, and for ultimately sacrificing their life for ours. What a gift!

Pictures below courtesy of Kyra Cancel who painted, printed and buried her placenta!

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