RAPIDLY disappearing burial space in Oxford will see the city council turn to already purchased graves to temporarily solve the shortage.

Oxford is just two years away from completely running out of space to bury the dead, according to the authority, with Botley currently the only cemetery in the city still with plots.

Despite a decade-long search for land, and more than £20,000 spent on investigation work, the council has so far failed to find a site to create a new graveyard.

It had identified land between Horspath Athletic Ground and Shotover Hill as the only viable council-owned site and planned a 20-acre development.

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No progress has been made for several years, however, as when Oxford Preservation Trust donated the land in 1952 it included a covenant against development.

Two potential privately-owned sites to the north and north east of Oxford have also been found but council documents state it would require the authority to spend a 'considerable sum of money' and compulsory purchase land.

Alongside the ongoing search, the council now plans to use grave plots where burial rights were bought but never used and the deeds have expired.

These are known as heritage graves and must not have been used after 75 years at least.

The council will also look at reclaiming graves which have been used but the rights were never purchased.

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Unlike reusing graves, which is only allowed in London, this would not disturb human remains with the new burial on top of the older one.

Head of community services at the council, Ian Brooke, said: "As cemetery space becomes harder to find it's important that we examine all of the options.

"These proposals offer a solution that means the council will be able to continue to offer a service into the future while still investigating the possibility of finding suitable land for a new cemetery."

The council said it will make 'all reasonable effort' to contact anyone before reusing a plot, with deed holders notified in writing of the intention to reclaim the grave within six months.

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If the deed holder is not contactable the council will place a notice on the grave and publish a notice in the local newspaper.

Oxford City Council currently estimates that all cemeteries in the city will be closed to new graves by 2021.

This is based on current burial rates within Oxford, which mirror the national trend of 20 per cent of people opting for burial and 80 per cent for cremation.

It is expected around 400 additional plots in the city's four cemeteries would be freed if the new scheme is approved by councillors.

Headington and Rose Hill cemeteries have been closed to new burials since 2003 and 1995 respectively, with Wolvercote Cemetery closing in January.

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Council documents show the plan would only provide a temporary solution, however, with grave spaces estimated to run out by 2023 under the scheme.

A council report by Oxford cemeteries manager Laura Harlock and parks and open spaces manager Stuart Fitzsimmons warned: "With current cemeteries closing, new grave space declining rapidly and no land being developed for a new cemetery, the council is entering a challenging period for burial provision.

"Without this immediate action, in two years’ time Oxford could potentially be the first authority to have no place for their residents to be buried within its administrative boundaries."

The proposals for grave reclamation will be considered by the authority's Cabinet on Wednesday, May 29.