The motif Sea ghost is a part of: Ghost
Sea, water, beach, limit, death
A "sea ghost" is the ghost of a drowned, that is washed up upon the beach. You may, according to popular belief, meet the ghost at or near the beach. Sea ghosts are described in Just Mathias Thiele's Danmarks Folkesagn (Danish Popular Belief, 1843-60), vol. 2, p. 219f (Rosenkilde og Bagger, Copenhagen 1968). In Thiele it is not evident that the ghosts want to be buried, but in the cited stories they do want to get to a church. In one of the stories it travels on the back of a human, like in Andersen's "Anne Lisbeth". In both of the popular tales a church goblin is an opponent of the ghost.
Oh! What was that lying over there? She became very frightened, and yet it was nothing but a heap of tangled seaweed, but to her fancy it had seemed for a moment the body of a man. As she continued on her way she remembered many stories she had heard as a child about the old superstitious belief in the "sea ghost" – the ghost of a drowned body that lay still unburied, washed by the tides on the wild seashore. The lifeless body itself could harm no one, but the "sea ghost" would follow a solitary wanderer, clinging fast to him and demanding to be carried to the churchyard and buried in consecrated ground. "Hold on! Hold on!" it would cry; and as Anne Lisbeth thought of these words, all at once there came back to her most vividly her dream – how the mothers had clung to her, screaming, "Hold fast! Hold on!" how the world had split beneath her, how her sleeves had been torn apart and she had fallen from the grasp of her child, who had tried to hold her up in the hour of doom. Her child, her own flesh and blood, whom she had never loved and scarcely ever thought of, was now lying at the bottom of the sea; any day his body might be washed ashore, and his ghost might follow her, wailing, "Hold on! Hold on! Bury me in Christian earth!"
Panic-stricken by this horrible thought, she ran faster and faster.
When she came to, it was bright daylight, and two men were lifting her up. She was lying, not in the churchyard, but down on the seashore, where she had been digging a deep hole in the sand, and had cut her fingers on a broken glass, the stem of which was stuck in a wooden block painted blue.
Anne Lisbeth was ill; her conscience had spoken loudly to her that night, and superstitious terror had mingled its voice with the voice of conscience. She had no power to distinguish between them; she was now convinced that she had but half a soul, while the other half had been borne away by her child, away to the bottom of the ocean; and never could she hope for the mercy of God until she again possessed the half soul that was imprisoned in those deep waters.
Anne Lisbeth went home, but she was no longer the same. Her thoughts were like tangled yarn; there was only one thread that she could clearly grasp; just one idea possessed her, that she must carry the "sea ghost" to the churchyard and there dig a grave for it. Many a night they missed her from her home and always found her down by the shore, waiting for the "sea ghost." So a whole year passed, and then one night she disappeared and this time was sought in vain. All of the following day was spent in searching for her.
Toward evening, when the parish clerk entered the church to ring the bell for vespers, he found Anne Lisbeth lying before the altar. She had been here ever since dawn; her strength was nearly gone, but her eyes were bright and a faint rosy hue lighted her face; the last sunbeams shone down upon her, streamed over the altar, and glowed on the bright silver clasps of the Bible, open at this text from the Prophet Joel; "Rend your heart and not your garments, and turn unto the Lord your God." This was just by chance, said people, as so many things happen by chance.
In Anne Lisbeth's face, as the setting sun shone upon it, were peace and grace. Now she was so happy, she said. Now she had won back her soul! During the past night the spirit of her own child had been with her, and had said, "You dug but half a grave for me, but now for a year and a day you have entombed me in your own heart, and that is the only proper resting place a mother can provide for her child!" And then he had returned to her lost half soul and guided her to the church!
"Now I am in God's house!" she said. "And only there can one be happy!"
When the sun had set, the soul of Anne Lisbeth had gone way up from this earth to where there are no fears nor the troubles that we have here, even such as those of Anne Lisbeth.