very superstitious

Do We Bury Our Baby's Placenta Out of Myth or Medical Necessity?

Local beliefs say that your placenta is your older sibling.
October 5, 2017, 11:00am
Illustration by Dini Lestari

"Very Superstitious" is our ongoing series on the roots of Indonesian myths, superstitions, and folk lore. Click here for more.

In Indonesia we thankfully bury placentas, not eat them.

Here, burying the placenta of newborn babies is a common ritual that transcends the nation's various religious and ethnic lines. Different families have their own traditions when it comes to the burying of the placenta after the birth of a new child. Some bury it on the day of the child's birth, while others wait up to a week. In some local beliefs, the ritual is followed with prayers, the burying other items, or the planting of a tree.

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Regardless of the specifics, the tradition has been around for so long that it's basically accepted as the norm. But what is the meaning behind this tradition in the first place? Why do we do it?

A lot of Indonesians see the placenta as the "older sibling" of the fetus, and therefore, believe that it deserves a proper burial, explained Ira Indrawardana, an anthropologist at Padjadjaran University, in Bandung, West Java. These beliefs come from the fact that the placenta plays a vital role in providing the fetus with nutrients and oxygen, she said.

"In Sundanese culture, a placenta is called dulur sakembaran (or twin sibling)," Ira told VICE. "When the placenta's job is over then, as a thank you, it will be provided with a proper burial."

The Balinese have a slightly different way to treating the placenta. They place it into an empty coconut shell and hang it from a tree. But the principle here is the same: to pay respect to a meritorious body part. Some people also take it to another level.

"Buried placenta also serves as an inner binder for a human with his or her place of birth," Ira said. "That's why there's a tradition that requires someone to grab the soil where their placenta was buried and take it to their new house when they move."

But from a medical point of view, the ritual is simply for hygiene's sake. Mahesa Paranadipta, a member of the Indonesian Doctors Association, said that myths and beliefs aside, human body parts are supposed to be buried so they don't attract bacteria or get eaten by wild animals.

"From medical ethics point of view, it's simply the norm to bury body parts," Mahesa said.

But human placenta is becoming more than just a disposable part of the birth process. Indonesian doctors are currently using stem cells taken from the placenta to develop ways to fight diseases like Parkinson's Disease. The doctors temporarily take the placenta right after a child is born and extract the stem cells, think of them as cells without a dedicated purpose that can be used for almost anything, from the core fluid before handing the placenta back for burial.

So even when we're getting super scientific, Indonesians are still burying their placentas. I recently had to participate in this tradition myself. My older sister asked me to dig a hole in the soil of a tiny garden behind her home. "It's for your nephew's placenta," she said.

So I dug deep and eventually helped bury the placenta on the day my nephew was born. When I was done, per my sister's instructions, I hung a light bulb over the site. I'm not really sure why. As a marker, perhaps. But I didn't ask too many questions, out of respect. Some things you do just because.