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In Italy, perhaps due to our Greek-Roman influence on culture, it is not uncommon to see something like:

alpha January 9, 1913 — omega April 22, 1994

...written on tombstones to mean dates of birth and death respectively. While I thought this was pretty much universal and my previous use of this symbolism didn't seem to raise any eyebrows, I was mildly surprised to see it wasn't suggested on a question like this, especially because it seems to fit the description fairly well.

Now, instead of adding yet another answer to that question — 23 are more than enough — I have to wonder: are alpha and omega commonly understandable symbols for life and death in English culture?

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closed as off topic by Robusto, Thursagen, Jasper, aedia λ, Mehper C. Palavuzlar Sep 9 '11 at 6:42

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Yes, that α is an alpha, the first letter of the Greek alphabet. The Georgia font doesn't really make it clear. –  badp Sep 8 '11 at 23:05
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The actual answer is "no". This usage not common At least, not in the UK, where I've never even heard of it before now. b and d are the common single-letter indicators. –  FumbleFingers Sep 8 '11 at 23:23
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If you do want to add an answer to that question on ux.se, then you should probably mention that the dagger (†) symbol is the traditional way to mark deceased persons in a list of names. (No, it's not a Christian symbol. It comes from an ancient Greek editing symbol for deletions.) –  Marthaª Sep 8 '11 at 23:49
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No, it is not common. At least according to the opening titles of the old "Ben Casey" TV series, where Sam Jaffe writes symbols: "man ... woman ... birth ... death ... infinity". –  GEdgar Sep 9 '11 at 0:19
    
If you spelled out the symbols using an "English" alphabet, "alpha" and "omega," instead of Greek letters, this question would be on topic IMHO. I have made this change, and nominat the question for reopeoning in its current form –  Tom Au Apr 9 '13 at 16:24

2 Answers 2

up vote 10 down vote accepted

In America, I have never seen alpha and omega used to mean life and death on a gravestone specifically. However, the second definition of alpha listed in the Oxford English Dictionary is:

Hence, The beginning; esp. in phr. alpha and omega n. ‘the beginning and the end,’ originally of the divine Being.

This use was originally Biblical:

1382 Bible (Wycliffite, E.V.) Rev. i. 8, I am alpha and oo, the bigynnyng and endyng, seith the Lord God.

Wikipedia also lists alpha and omega as having Biblical origins from Revelations. Being that over half of all Americans are Christian of some denomination, and many in the UK are also Christian, it is likely that they would recognize the phrase as referring to the beginning and the end. So, it is possible that they could apply this meaning to gravestones. However, these symbols are not commonly used as such in my experience, so I would not venture so far as to say that they are commonly understandable.

Also, based on the fact that over 90% of Italians are Christian it is possible that the use you see is based on the Bible as well.

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No. An expression like from alpha to omega is readily understandable as 'from beginning to end', and perhaps by extension 'completely', but it is not commonly associated with the human lifespan. The phrase the alpha and omega is familiar to many from the Bible, specifically, Revelation 1:8, ‘I am the Alpha and Omega, the first and the last’; I have seen it used as a paraphrase of ‘God’ and of ‘Jesus’. By extension it is used to mean 'the beginning and the end', as in ‘Information is the alpha and omega of our work’. Similarly it can refer to things at the opposite ends of some spectrum, as in ‘The Alpha and Omega of Healthcare in the United States’, the title of an article discussion two antithetical approaches to health care.

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