Rituals and Uses of the Placenta After Birth

The placenta serves to nourish our babies before they are born, as well as forming a barrier to filter out substances that can be harmful to the unborn child. For the medical establishment, the placenta’s job is done once birth has begun, and the organ that provided life for the child in the womb is to be discarded. However, for many cultures and some modern women, there are rituals surrounding the placenta that should be observed. These rituals vary, and can include consumption of all or part of the placenta, ceremonial burial of the organ, naming of the placenta, hanging it in a tree for consumption by scavengers, and making a print of the placenta as a reminder of its function.

Eating the Placenta

There is some anecdotal evidence that consumption of the placenta, either cooked, dried, or as part of a broth, can help prevent or ameliorate post partum depression. A number of cultures, including natives in Papua New Guinea and women in Vietnam and China prepare and consume the placenta, as do some animals, lending credence to this theory. Chemicals in the placenta may have the ability to repair some of the hormonal imbalances that occur due to childbirth, but they are probably not a complete remedy for all the effects that are referred to as PPD.

Burying the Placenta

Placenta burial is common among even more cultures. In a number of places, such as Kenya, Malaysia, and Nigeria, the placenta is considered the baby’s twin, or thought to have its own spirit, and is buried with the appropriate rites. In Mexico, Nepal, and New Zealand, the placenta is honored as the companion or friend of the baby, and is placed in the earth reverently, but is not thought to have a spirit of its own. Specific burial rites vary by culture, and in some, the placenta will be placed high up, such as in a tree, instead of being buried in the ground.
In modern Western culture, placenta burial is usually highly personal. It may be based of off the rituals of other cultures, or on the perception of those rituals, but will probably be altered depending on the individual’s preference. It can be planted at the base of a tree or bush, for instance. Some mothers choose to get a special plant for each placenta they bury. Generally, if any time needs to elapse between the birth and the burial of the placenta, it is frozen until the time comes. Since the placenta is very nourishing, it will help the plant above it grow as it decomposes, returning to the earth. It may also be placed in its own container and buried with a marker.

Other Uses of the Placenta

Some people choose not to keep the placenta itself, or to engage in other rituals in addition to the burial or consumption of it. Making prints of the placenta, using either the blood that covers it or ink and paint, are not uncommon. Art done with a related substance – the amniotic membrane – has also been made. These are ways to have a keepsake of the pregnancy that reminds us of our connection with the earth. The placenta can be disposed of, buried, or consumed (provided no paint or ink was used) afterward, as the mother chooses.