The phrase has been in use since at least the 18th century because it was included in 'A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue' by Francis Grose in 1785.
There are two possible sources for the expression. One is that a bucket has often been used by somebody attempting to carry out a suicide (by standing on the bucket, fixing the rope and then kicking the bucket away).
Personally, I think the more credible source is that in parts of England the word bucket was used to describe not only a pail but also a beam from which a pig was hung by its heels before being slaughtered.
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