The treatment of an individual at the end of life often materializes their social roles and identity during life. As has been described at some length in previous chapters (see also Goody 1962), the ancestors play a central role in the lives of living Voltaic communities, since they maintain the well-being of various social (cultural) groups in the natural world. Individual houses and the community (through the founding house) are conceptualized as everlasting entities with named ancestors. Even in Voltaic societies where the membership of a house can change every generation (e.g. the Gouin), former house members still act as a unit in funerals (Dacher 1997a). In Gourounsi villages, where descent plays a particularly important role in social organization, early twentieth-century accounts even recorded the construction and use (ritual petitioning through diverse sacrifices) of false huts over the tombs of ancestors (Tauxier 1912).
In Bwa villages, funerals are a rare occasion when large groups of people get together, and individual roles in ceremony and ritual are codified (Cremer 1924, 1927; Capron 1973; Bicaba 1975). In particular, smiths are responsible for digging the graves, as well as performing rituals involving the spirits of the earth in the tomb. Griots perform music at various points, as dancing is common. Specialists receive compensation in the form of cowries and food, including the products of animal sacrifices that are common in mortuary ceremonies. In the oral accounts collected by Cremer (1924, 1927), Bwa ritual and social practices associated with death and burial vary significantly according to the particular social categories and life history of the deceased. Some of the most elaborate treatment is reserved for the village and house headmen owing to their important ritual/political roles in the community.