Handmade bio degradable

Handmade, bio-degradable ipu whenua a Wairarapa first

29 Nov 2011

There are approximately 500 births each year at Wairarapa Hospital, and about half of the women take their placenta home following a birth.  Midwife, Carole Wheeler, has designed special containers to give to new mothers who wish to take their placenta home for burial. 

The locally handmade, bio-degradable  ipu whenua are designed to hold the whenua (placenta) after the birth and when it is returned to the land.  

“Within traditional Māori culture the whenua was buried in a special place within tribal land of the whanau,” says Carole. “Many women still follow this practice and often plant a tree or create a significant landmark to indicate the place of burial.  When I realized that women taking their placenta home were being given a non-bio-degradable plastic container for the task, I thought it would be nice if their Midwife could offer them a special gift. The cocoons I have designed are made from flax kete and decorated with paua and harakeke flowers. They contain a corn starch bag, a material that breaks down completely in the soil. They look attractive and they convey something special - an item parents can feel proud to own.” 

Carole says Wairarapa midwives are very supportive of this project to encourage the earth-friendly burial of placentas (whenua), and have contributed towards the cost of the first 35 ipu whenua. “These are now being given away free, as a gift to the birthing women of Wairarapa who intend taking their whenua home for burial." 

In addition to the ipu whenua Carole has made some tiny baskets - ipu taonga, (a vessel for a treasure) for tiny babies who are miscarried in early pregnancy. If a baby is stillborn before the 20th week of pregnancy and weighs less than 400 grams, parents are not legally required to bury the baby in a cemetery or have the baby cremated, although they can choose to do so if they wish. The fetus can be taken home or to a special place for the family to bury in an ipu taonga.  

Carole has also made bigger cocoons for very premature babies who don’t survive. If a baby is born alive or after the 20th week of pregnancy, or weighed 400 grams or more when he/she was born, then the baby must be buried or cremated in a registered place such as a cemetery, an urupā or a crematorium. The little lined flax cribs come in different sizes and there is no charge for them at all.

“I wanted parents to have something special to place their tiny baby in and when I realised a casket from the funeral director costs $300-$400, I thought I could design and make something cheaper, culturally sensitive and more appropriate. These late miscarried or early stillborn babies can be placed in the specially prepared crib after birth and rest there until burial or cremation.” 

Because there is no birth certificate for babies born before 20 weeks gestation, mothers can be given a “Certificate of Life” with details of their baby to recognize his or her existence. There are also locally made and donated memory boxes available for the parents of stillborn babes in which they can keep a lock of hair, a cot card, foot and handprints, name bands and a photo of the special baby. Sometimes these are the only tangible memories parents have.”  

The Shamrock Trust has supported the project by donating a camera and printer so the midwife on duty can, if the parents wish, photograph and print out photos of the tiny baby straight away. The Wairarapa Kaumātua Council has blessed the project and the Māori Directorate at Wairarapa DHB has promised ongoing support.

Three groups of parents at their antenatal classes have been given materials and instruction and have made their own ipu whenua which they have personally decorated to take with them to the hospital ready to transport their placenta home.  The first ipu whenua made was used by a Wairarapa midwife for the burial of her placenta in Wairarapa before she returned to Canada. 

Midwives have also taken ipu for homebirths and to several hospitals in the North Island and Christchurch, hoping that midwives and women will copy the idea and spread the bio-degradable, earth friendly message throughout New Zealand. 

Last updated 03/01/2012