At best, the expression “to kick the bucket” is a disrespectful synonym for “to die.”
Perhaps if we used it only of animals, or especially of animals slaughtered for food we might approach a literal meaning and the phrase would lose its humorous concept.
The evidence on the original meaning is slight and perhaps future etymologists will find other and stronger clues for another interpretation. This evidence is that “bucket,” in this phrase, refers to a beam or yoke on which anything may be hung or carried.
This evidence is supported by Levin’s Dictionarie of English and Latine Wordes, published in 1570, and also by Shakespeare’s use of “bucket” in Henry IV, “Swifter than hee that gibbets on the brewers bucket.”
Further evidence appeared in Notes & Queries about 1860, in which a correspondent stated that even at that time in East Anglia “to kick the bucket” alluded to the way in which a slaughtered pig is hung up.
His explanation was that “bucket” referred to a bent piece of wood placed behind the tendons of the hind legs of the pig by which the animal was suspended to a hook in a beam. Probably the dying convulsive struggles of the pig became the literal origin of the phrase.
It is interesting to note that a recent correspondent to Notes & Queries (April 19, 1947), who signs his communication the initials “C.T.S,” advances the theory that the expression comes from an old custom observed in the Catholic church.
He says: “After death, when the body had been laid out, a cross and two lighted candles were placed near it, and in addition to these the holy-water bucket was brought from the church and put at the feet of the corpse. When friends came to pray for the deceased, before leaving the room they would sprinkle the body with holy water.
So intimately therefore was the bucket associated with the feet of deceased persons that it is easy to see how the saying came about.”