Ask

by Jill Lepore

A great many questions about life and death have no answers, including, notably, these three: How does life begin? What does it mean? What happens when you're dead? These questions are ancient; they riddle myths and legends; they lie at the heart of every religion; they animate a great deal of scientific research. No one has ever answered them and no one ever will, but everyone tries; trying is the human condition. All anyone can do is ask.

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Jill Lepore is the David Woods Kemper '41 Professor of American History at Harvard University and a staff writer at The New Yorker. Her work is excerpted from The Mansion of Happiness, her latest book.