Fr. Paul Scalia’s sermon at the recent funeral of his father, Justice Antonin Scalia, was an excellent model of what a funeral sermon should be— both as rhetoric and as theology.
The main body of the sermon (after the greetings) begins with the rhetorical device of paraprosdokian:
We are gathered here because of one man. A man known personally to many of us, known only by reputation to even more. A man loved by many, scorned by others. A man known for great controversy, and for great compassion. That man, of course, is Jesus of Nazareth.
Paraprosdokian is peculiarly appropriate to funeral sermons— the congregation expects them to be about the deceased, but they are really about God. One of the most famous of all funeral orations, Massillon’s sermon for the funeral of King Louis XIV begins with a similar device. Massillon began by reading his text:
Behold I am become great, and have gone beyond all in wisdom, that were before me in Jerusalem… and I have perceived that in these also there was labour, and vexation of spirit.
Then he is supposed to have paused for a long time, letting the words sink in. The congregation expects him to speak of the greatness of “Louis le Grand,” but when, at last, he continued, he cried out:
Dieu seul est grand, mes frères et dans ces derniers moments surtout où il préside à la mort des rois de la terre : plus leur gloire et leur puissance ont éclaté, plus, en s’évanouissant alors, elles rendent hommage à sa grandeur suprême : Dieu paroît tout ce quil est, et l’homme n’est plus rien de tout ce qu’il croyoit être.
God only is great, my brethren; and above all in those last moments when He presides at the death of the kings of the earth. The more their glory and their power have shone forth, the more in vanishing then do they render homage to His supreme greatness; God then appears all that He is, and man is no more at all that which he believed himself to be. (trans. E.C. Dargan)
In a letter to a protestant minister, Justice Scalia noted that funeral sermons are particularly suited to preaching the Gospel to those who need to hear it:
Weddings and funerals (but especially funerals) are the principal occasions left in modern America when you can preach the Good News not just to the faithful, but to those who have never really heard it.
This is certainly true. In the parishes in which I am now, I preach at many funerals to a congregation of nominal Catholics. Such nominal Catholics have often given little thought to God, and usually wouldn’t take any talk of Him seriously. But confronted as they are with the death of a near relation or friend— with that ultimate seriousness of death— they are suddenly willing to listen.