She was a really nice professor and she wrote me a good recommendation letter that resulted in a lot of good results with applications. Recently, this professor died from brain cancer, which was a fast and shocking death for me.

Tomorrow is the deadline for a grant. What should I do? Is it professional to use letters from the deceased?

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    I should say, if you have access to the letter (i.e. European-style reference where the candidate submits the - open - letter), and you can be confident that there were no shift in situation which would have given her reason to change the letter, I do not think it is unethical per se. You might need to mention that she is deceased now - but I have no strong opinion on that. People do pass away, unfortunately also referees, so it should be understandable. It may be a problem if the letter is very old. Jun 25, 2016 at 14:31
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    @CaptainEmacs I think if you do that you must disclose that you are using a recommendation letter without the consent of the giver, and explain why.
    – Bitwise
    Jun 25, 2016 at 14:49
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    @Bitwise: If the letter was completely finished and ready to be sent the way the OP received it, and if the letter was supposed to be read and submitted by the candidate, as outlined by Captain Emacs above, then the professor did consent before passing away, by the very action of handing over the letter to the OP. Otherwise, I agree. Jun 25, 2016 at 16:55
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    "I attach letters of recommendation from Dr W and the late Professor X." Perfectly reasonable. Jun 26, 2016 at 12:57
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    @Bitwise Why? A letter of recommendation is intended to be used. Otherwise why write it?
    – user207421
    Jun 26, 2016 at 22:23

6 Answers 6


If I cared enough about a person to write a letter of recommendation, I would be pleased to think that one day after I am gone that the person could use my letter for their benefit.

You will possibly benefit from this recommendation and possibly someone else will suffer if you are selected based upon the recommendation; however, competition is not generally considered unethical.

There are no legal questions raised that I can imagine.

It seems unconventional, but not extreme.

My feelings are that it would be ethical to use the letter.

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    Re: your second paragraph... isn't that the point of recommendation letters? That you get propelled to the top of the line by having someone willing to put their name behind you?
    – corsiKa
    Jun 29, 2016 at 15:45

I attach letters of recommendation from Dr W and the late Professor X.

Perfectly reasonable.

The point is, it's courteous to refer to the deceased as the late Professor X to prevent confusion or embarrassment and to avoid unnecessary pain to the bereaved.

If you don't do this, and the widower receives a letter addressed to his wife that assumes she's alive, then has to write back to someone he doesn't know explaining to save your skin, shame on you.


I am in, more or less, your exact situation. My PhD supervisor died of a brain tumor in 2011. However, he did not leave behind a letter for me, nor am I on the market. I think you should be careful of the culture that you are applying in. If the culture demands, usually, that the letter be blind to the applicant, then you should probably not use it unless you state in your cover letter the reason why you have included it. If it's an open system, then you will probably benefit from it unless it's been 5 or 10 years since your recommender's passing. Either way, as the comments say, you should disclose what's going on.

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    it is open style letter. starting to whom it may concern. It is not old then 2 years.
    – SSimon
    Jun 26, 2016 at 5:56
  • @SSimon even it it's not an "open" letter, someone else may be able to send the letter on the deceased's behalf. (I think I've seen a letter before that included a long except from a deceased advisor's previous letter.)
    – Kimball
    Jun 27, 2016 at 6:17

One option would be to have the letter sent to a colleague who knows your work and was close to your late professor. That person could then write you a letter which could incorporate some of the information from your late professor's letter. For example, they could include an excerpt from that letter put into context. This both gets around some of the ethical issues (since the new letter writer can explain that the old letter writer passed away) and also avoids some of the issues with the letter being out of date (since the new letter writer will be able to include comments on recent developments).

  • I know people that were close to her, but they were not related to my work at all. is that ok?
    – SSimon
    Jun 26, 2016 at 5:58
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    @SSimon: No, if I were them I would decline, because then they are recommending you without actually having any "authority" on which to do so. Awkward for both of you, potentially. Jun 27, 2016 at 16:31

I have no ethical qualms about using a letter from a deceased professor. I would however also seek out at least one letter from a colleague of the professor, not because it's unethical but because only having a letter from a deceased professor will at least raise eyebrows.


I have letters of recommendation, which I have publicly published (online).

I don't bother to keep track of whether each of the authors behind these letters continues to breathe.

If I found out that somebody has passed away, do you think I ought to go into my collection of published material and delete the content? The person's life has been snubbed away from the planet. You think I should go remove a positive thing that provides some ongoing evidence of this person's activity?

The point of these rhetorical questions is point out some of the reasoning to my opinion, which is obviously that it's fine to use the letter. If I were on my death bed with a week to live, but I knew I could help someone by writing a letter of recommendation, and if I bothered to write that letter, I wouldn't want them to tear up the letter into pieces in a couple of weeks just because I will have left my death bed by that point.

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    will they check the letter? How realistically is that to happen?
    – SSimon
    Jun 29, 2016 at 15:37
  • @SSimon : Less likely than 30-50 years ago. But still likely enough that I expect a high chance that some people check.
    – TOOGAM
    Jun 30, 2016 at 1:54

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